By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
For Kevin McCarthy—FINALLY!—the 15th time was the charm.
Last week, the nation was held hostage, watching Republican infighting in the U.S. House of Representatives as the GOP heir apparent, Kevin McCarthy, lost vote after vote for the House speakership, each vote count conducted immediately on the heels of the one that preceded it.
With all members voting, McCarthy needed the support of 218 members to win the necessary majority. To succeed, he could only afford to lose four Republican votes to another candidate. The Democrats stood unified behind their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, with a solid 212 votes for him on each of the 15 ballots.
But 20 hardline right-wing Republicans of the self-styled Freedom Caucus steadfastly opposed McCarthy. The Bakersfield, Calif. congressman spent most of the week courting them—while they wrung concession after concession out of him, only to vote against him in each successive balloting and demand even more concessions afterwards. Based on their tactics, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell dubbed McCarthy’s adversaries “legislative terrorists.” It was predicted by various commentators that by the time McCarthy was done, his power as speaker would be entirely undermined.
By Friday, after a seemingly never-ending nightmare for the groveling McCarthy, the opposition was whittled down to six. Ultimately, the six intransigent representatives, (Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Andy Biggs and Eli Crane of Arizona, Bob Good of Virginia, Matt Rosendale of Montanta, and Matt Gaetz of Florida) allowed McCarthy his victory on the 15th ballot by voting “present.”
Under the House’s arcane rules, those voting “present” don’t count as part of the total votes from which a majority must be obtained. Thus, McCarthy was able to eke out a majority with just 216 votes. This, however, was not before Matt Gaetz, who had previously cast an irritating vote for Donald Trump as speaker, caused a brouhaha as the final, single vote denying McCarthy his win on the 14th ballot. Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers had to be physically restrained from charging at Gaetz . And then, just as the House was about to adjourn until Monday, Gaetz suddenly changed course; and instead of adjourning, the Republicans went for that 15th ballot. The one that did the trick.
What irony that those who aided the January 6, 2021 insurrection by objecting to the certification of President Biden’s election should be the ones to decide whether McCarthy became leader on the 2023 anniversary of that attack. And what drama! What a great circus it all was! Wait—no. Circus performers demonstrate far more discipline than that shown by the Republican Party. Not to mention the strong backbones required of circus performers.
While this congressional show may have been amusing to some Democrats in the chamber, it was frustrating to many of the representatives-elect who could not, without an elected speaker, be sworn in as members of the House and begin the work they were elected to conduct.
But forget the Republican theatrics. The truly serious question that will affect the nation is what concessions McCarthy made to the right-wing extremists in his party so they would let him be Speaker. What did Matt Gaetz get that made him and his fellow legislative bomb throwers back off and allow McCarthy his win? And how much more damage will those concessions do to democratic governance?
According to Salon’s early report, McCarthy agreed to investigate former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Biden Administration, and the treatment of the January 2021 Capitol attackers. He also agreed to remove pandemic and post-Jan. 6 security protocols at the Capitol and limit the Office of Congressional Ethics—all moves supremely desirable for those members of the House who supported Trump’s effort to prevent the Congress’s certification of President Biden’s election or who would prefer to leave the Capitol unprotected for the next round of insurrections.
McCarthy has agreed that any one member of the House can force a motion to vacate his position, thus calling for a vote to remove him from the speakership. This renders McCarthy’s win of the speakership on Friday a textbook Pyrrhic victory. Any time even one member opposes some proposal he makes or negotiation concerning legislation, the work of the House can be halted while members vote whether to remove him. This places McCarthy utterly at the mercy of his party’s extremists, who have already shown their willingness to disrupt the ability of the House to function. Among other concerns, it will make it more difficult for the House to raise spending, taxes, and the debt limit.
To mollify those withholding support, McCarthy agreed to create a House Judiciary select subcommittee on the “weaponization of the Federal Government” whose sweeping purview will be to investigate the Biden Administration, the source of COVID-19, and the relationship between the United States and China. The subcommittee is not expected to have individual subpoena power. But the full Judiciary Committee does have such power. And right-wing pit bull Jim Jordan from Ohio is expected to be the Committee’s chair.
In addition, under McCarthy’s leadership, Republicans plan to reinstate the Holman rule, last in effect during the Trump Administration. This rule would allow amendments to appropriations bills that would cut the salaries of particular federal workers or programs to $1.00—in essence, ruthlessly defunding them. According to The Hill, some Republicans have suggested the rule should be used to defund certain investigations, as well as officials in the FBI, DOJ, Homeland Security, and those involved in Covid policy making.
Some of the right-wing holdouts also demanded to be made subcommittee chairs. It is not yet known to what degree McCarthy capitulated. But, according to Bloomberg, Matt Gaetz wanted to chair a House Armed Services subcommittee. And Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris, “one of Congress’s most conspicuous opponents of abortion and recreational marijuana, wanted the gavel of the Appropriations subcommittee on Health and Human Services.”
On Friday, Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado expressed concern to MSNBC that if McCarthy has given Freedom Caucus members subcommittee chairmanships, they will use the chairmanships to grind House business to a halt, paralyzing the institution. Crow, a former Army Ranger and Bronze Star recipient, was especially concerned about the possibility of Matt Gaetz—who has accused the Pentagon of being more focused on “wokeism” than defense—becoming chair of the armed services subcommittee.
Most important of all, the extreme right-wing Freedom Caucus demanded three seats on the Rules Committee. That committee controls what bills make it to the House floor as well as procedures affecting debate. Power over House rules would enable the hardliners to control what gets raised and what gets debated for the next two years.
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the most recent Rules Committee chair, told NBC News, “The reason these people want to be on the Rules Committee is they want to screw things up for McCarthy. They want to micromanage every single thing that he brings to the floor.”
In his speech nominating House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries on the 14th ballot, Rep. Pete Aguilar of California pointed out that “the same individuals who fanned the flames of Jan.6…and who challenged the swearing in of members based on a bogus claim of fake electors may well be in charge of the People’s House, if they can ever agree on who can lead them.”
It appears that Rep. Aguilar’s prediction may well have come true.
Based on their tactics and their demands, the current batch of extremists don’t want to govern but want to use their congressional power to prevent investigations into their actions related to the Jan. 6 attack, take revenge on those who conducted legitimate investigations in the last Congress, and tear down democratic governance for their own aggrandizement.
The misnamed Freedom Caucus’ mentality has been decades in the making. There is a direct line extending back from these disruptive, pseudo anarchists to the the Tea Party movement, and even further back, to Ronald Reagan’s government-bashing.
The Democratic-held Senate and the presidential veto power may succeed in blocking the most extreme legislation the House is now likely to pass. Nevertheless, as Betty Davis famously said in All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.