Republicans bow to extremists, again
McCarthy's deal to become speaker shows who's really in charge.
By Noah Berlatsky
After 15 votes and a near Republican Royal Rumble on the House floor, Kevin McCarthy staggered early Saturday into the position of speaker of the House battered, humiliated, and weaker than just about any speaker in memory. By pandering to the extremist, post-policy Freedom Caucus in his own party, McCarthy set the stage for two years of inaction, chaos, and, potentially, global economic catastrophe.
Most analyses of the danger the country faces have focused on the compromises McCarthy made with the Freedom Caucus to seize the gavel. Many of these concessions are legitimately cause for worry.
But the truth is, no deal is a suicide pact. Republicans in Congress can repudiate the Freedom Caucus at any time, if they want. But they won’t, as their cynical capitulation to the far right shows.
McCarthy’s deal empowers nihilists
The GOP over the last seven years, and really over the last 20, has been continually faced with a choice between fascism and democracy, between demagoguery and the interests of the country. Over and over, no matter the cost, no matter how much it debases them or endangers the nation, they have chosen fascism and demagoguery. The real threat is not that the GOP agreed to bad rules; it’s that they never agree to anything else.
The exact details of McCarthy’s promises to Freedom Caucus members are still uncertain, since the House rules package has not passed and the House has no assigned committee members and chairs. Based on current reporting, though, the major concession is probably that the Freedom Caucus members and the far right have approval power over a third of GOP members on the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee determines which legislation reaches the House floor. Since Democrats will oppose most GOP legislation, this gives the Freedom Caucus an effective veto over McCarthy’s legislative initiatives.
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McCarthy also reportedly agreed to allow any member to bring a motion to “vacate the chair” — in other words, to oust him. The goal here is to prevent McCarthy from making deals with Democrats to pass needed legislation. If he attempts to do so, a conservative member could call a vote on his speakership, and potentially remove him.
It’s hard to measure how much these rules would actually alter the state of play, or in whose favor. Creating Republican fractures on the Rules Committee could give Democrats more power rather than less. To vacate the speaker’s chair, a majority of the chamber would need to vote to dump McCarthy, and Democrats are unlikely to help the far right punish McCarthy for working with them. As a result, congressional experts think the vote to vacate is largely a symbolic non-issue.
McCarthy has also signaled he plans a far right legislative agenda, including during the speech he delivered early Saturday morning just after his election as speaker.
But not much of that is likely to pass under a Democratic Senate and White House. The most potentially disruptive promises, therefore, involve blocking bills rather than passing them.
McCarthy has agreed to allow unlimited amendments to appropriations bills. The far right could load bills with poison pills Democrats won’t accept, leading to stalemate and government shutdown. Imagine, for example, that Congress is unable to fund food stamps or provide more aid to Ukraine.
Even worse, extremists are pushing McCarthy to agree to not raise the debt ceiling without spending concessions. The debt ceiling is a poorly designed mechanism that prevents the government from paying for debts it has already accrued without congressional approval. If Congress does not raise the ceiling, the country will default on those debts. That will plunge the US into depression and probably have catastrophic results for the world economy.
In the past, Republicans have tried to extract concessions on spending by holding the debt ceiling hostage, threatening to impoverish and immiserate millions of people if the GOP isn’t empowered, against the will of voters, to regulate spending unilaterally. In recent months Republicans have said they want to use the debt ceiling showdown to make major cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
The last debt limit showdown in 2011 led to a downgrade of government debt which cost taxpayers $1.3 billion and caused the Dow Jones to plunge 2,000 points. Democrats finally agreed to sweeping spending cuts and caps, which limited child care spending and other priorities for a decade.
Democrats have sworn not to allow Republicans to use the debt ceiling to extract concessions again. But they also bafflingly failed to raise the ceiling in the lame duck session before Republicans seized control of the House. The economic fate of the world now rests on the whims of people like Reps. Scott Perry and Paul Gosar — the same people who actively worked to help Trump overthrow the 2020 election.
It's frustrating that Democrats didn’t take the debt ceiling off the table when they controlled Congress. But the fact is, Republicans have agency also. They do not have to let their most irresponsible members dictate their legislative agenda.
Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska is what passes for a moderate in the GOP caucus these days. During the speakership controversy, he told news outlets, “If the small handful refuse to be part of the team, you cannot let them hold you hostage, and that’s what [radicals in the caucus are] doing right now.” While McCarthy was losing vote after vote last week, Bacon floated the idea of nominating a compromise Republican speaker with Democratic help.
In theory, this shouldn’t have been too difficult. Democrats have 212 votes in the House. With reasonable concessions — clean spending bills, speedy resolution of the debt ceiling fight, bipartisan agreement on subpoenas of government officials — they could have joined with six Republicans to form a stable governing coalition under Speaker Bacon. This should have been easy for Bacon and his allies to accept, since they also don’t want to gut the world economy or hand Russia a victory in Ukraine.
In practice, though, even Bacon wasn’t actually willing to take any steps towards limiting the power of the Freedom Caucus. Talking to the press is one thing. But when it came time to actually vote, Bacon cast his ballot for McCarthy 15 times, one after the other. McCarthy gave away seats on the Rules Committee. He gave away committee chairmanships. He gave away the future welfare of the globe. He gave away his dignity. Bacon whined
, and fumed. But he wasn’t willing to take the step of actually withholding his vote and forcing his caucus to suffer consequences for its extremism.
The Freedom Caucus isn’t popular — but it’s never been more powerful
When only the extremists are willing to take a stand, only the extremists will win. The GOP is a hostage to its most irresponsible members because it’s too frightened to confront them.
The logic here is straightforward. Republicans who defy insurrectionists, bounders, and fascists immolate their careers. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney stood against Trump’s authoritarian coup, and were quickly drummed out of Congress. Local officials who opposed Trump’s Stop the Steal received a deluge of death threats. The base loves fascism and chaos and demagoguery. Republicans are afraid for their jobs and even for their lives if they defy MAGA.
Of course, embracing fascism and chaos and demagoguery isn’t necessarily great politics either, as Republicans’ historically underwhelming midterm showing demonstrates. But the very red wave that wasn’t paradoxically empowered the Freedom Caucus. As the Republican coalition shrinks, the hardest of the hardcore become the only people left, which intensifies their influence, and the coalition shrinks further.
The GOP is in a vicious cycle in which the Matt Gaetzes are forever elevated while the Bacons forever cower in a ditch. Those are the rules under which the current GOP operates. McCarthy tried hard to portray himself as a winner Saturday morning, but his ascension is just another reiteration of the dire state of play for the Republicans, and the worse state of play for the country.
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