At the start of January, Kevin McCarthy’s difficulties in cobbling together a House majority to support his bid to become speaker produced endless comedy fodder for the late-night shows. Fourteen times, McCarthy went up for election. Fourteen times he lost.
With each loss, each humiliating reminder that one had to look back to the pre-Civil War days to find a speaker’s election this drawn-out, McCarthy ceded more ground to the extremist faction of his party. At first, he was unwilling to countenance the idea of a minority of congressmembers being able to trigger a new vote for House speaker; then he negotiated down to accepting that five or more members could force a vote; finally, he crossed his own redline on the issue and gave away the House — quite literally — by agreeing that a single member could torpedo a House speaker by calling for a new speakership contest.
On the 15th vote, McCarthy finally won, after six of his opponents, having been personally courted by Donald Trump, voted “present” instead of casting votes for others — meaning that he won without a majority of all the members voting for him — but he did so only by ceding a staggering amount of power to extremists. He grabbed the gavel, his gleeful face that of a kid in a candy store, but that gavel was now in splinters. And even those splinters, McCarthy had to admit, had only been his to grab because of Trump’s entreaties. No wonder that Trump, while he was president, condescendingly referred to McCarthy as “my Kevin.” No wonder, too, that by week’s end McCarthy was discussing the idea of legislation to “expunge” Trump’s two impeachments; if he did push this, it would be an utterly extraordinary rewriting of the historical record by a GOP leadership that has now entirely made its peace with the insurrectionary acts of January 6.
Once the levee had been breached on the notion that a single member could trigger another vote for speaker, it was no surprise that a flood would follow. Sure enough, the demands regarding new House rules came pouring in — rules that would gut the ability of the House to investigate its own via ethics committees; rules promoting a series of rolling investigations not only into Biden and his family, but also into the most basic law enforcement and judicial institutions of government; rules making it harder to raise taxes and easier to cut them; rules gutting funding for the Internal Revenue Service; rules encouraging legislation that would turbo-charge fossil fuel extraction in the U.S.; rules making it harder to increase funding for mandated programs such as Social Security and Medicare; rules forcing a vote every time the government wanted to increase its borrowing power — making it far more likely that, at some point down the road, the right wing of the GOP could walk the U.S. to, and perhaps beyond, the edge of debt-default as a way to force the government to cut spending on social services, on welfare, on education, on environmental policy, and other areas that have long been in the GOP’s crosshairs.
McCarthy, who had forfeited all of his bargaining strength once it became clear that he would ultimately accept the idea of a single solitary member being able to blackmail the speaker by threatening to call a leadership election unless his or her demands were met, quickly fell into line, as did the rest of the chastened GOP leadership in the House. By midweek, he had whipped his members to support the new rules package; and, reluctantly, the more moderate representatives fell into line and, almost to a person, voted for rules that, in their hearts, many must have realized were deeply counterproductive.
Thus were sown the seeds of the McCarthy speakership’s destruction. If McCarthy tries to embrace any sort of bipartisan legislation, individual congressmembers, such as Matt Gaetz, Andy Biggs, Paul Gosar or Lauren Boebert, can immediately — and repeatedly — hold his feet to the fire by triggering what would essentially be recall votes against him. Even if they don’t win these votes, the MAGA-diehards, most of whom came into office from 2016 onward with the express intention of destroying existing governing institutions, can entirely sabotage the functioning of Congress by swamping it with frivolous leadership contests. These would be similar in intent to Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), usually libel or defamation claims brought by corporations against social justice activists, journalists and watchdog groups, and aimed not at ultimately securing judicial wins but at wasting huge amounts of the advocates’ time, money and resources.
On the other hand, if McCarthy preemptively caves to the MAGA wing of his party on vital governance issues such as refusing to raise the debt ceiling, at some point enough enraged moderates, from groups such as the Problem Solvers Caucus, will peel off to allow the Democrats to start setting a legislative agenda of their own, or to at least protect the U.S.’s good credit; and, if McCarthy still stands in the way — behavior that would be utterly irresponsible, yet entirely in keeping with his shameful willingness to countenance anything, even Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection, so long as it helps pave his way to power — that single member provision will hold just as good for the moderates as for the extremists.
It is, quite simply, a circle that cannot be squared. McCarthy’s power is, now, the power of the doomed. His job is held at the mercy of antagonists some of whom loathe him for being too “moderate,” others of whom loathe him for his craven capitulation to the demands of the far right, and all of whom correctly understand that he is a man of no principles, a hired hand for sale.
Will McCarthy last 24 months, or six, or even two? He has already signed too many promissory notes, and in consequence there are too many liens on his speaker’s gavel. McCarthy has the single thing that he has always craved: the luster of power. Yet his is a pyrrhic victory, for to attain it he handed all real political force and leverage to the MAGA-diehards.