Kevin McCarthy’s Reign Begins—for Now

Kevin McCarthy’s Reign Begins—for Now

Kevin McCarthy’s Reign Begins—for Now

The morning after the second anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, Republicans managed to elect Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House.


Our long national nightmare is just beginning. After a week of futile posturing and trench warfare on the House floor, the House GOP caucus somehow managed to elect Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House on the 15th ballot. In the early hours of January 7, after the second anniversary of the 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, McCarthy appeared doomed for more purgatorial humiliation as the 14th vote broke against expectations and failed to produce a majority for him. But just as the House was going to vote to adjourn, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, one of the hard-right ringleaders of the “Never Kevin” insurgency, buttonholed the speaker-in-waiting for an impromptu conference. Moments later, McCarthy rushed to take back his endorsement of the pending adjournment, and finally claimed his battered, tarnished, dubiously functional leadership prize.

The scene couldn’t help but echo the twilight drama of two January 7s past, when the House certified the electoral count vote in favor of President-elect Joe Biden around 3:30 am, after a violent mob invaded the Capitol on a mission to overthrow the rickety residual safeguards of popular sovereignty in America. One reason such parallels suggested themselves was that the chief strategists of the anti-McCarthy putsch were themselves neck-deep in January 6 intrigue. Freedom Caucus chairman Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania, was closely involved in the doomed and deranged bid to strong-arm legislatures in swing states into disowning their certified election tabulations, as the recently released report of the House’s select committee on January 6 documents. A report from Grid shows that the groundwork for the anti-McCarthy revolt was laid at a think tank called the Conservative Partnership Institute, where former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows presided over a plan to elevate the hard-right Freedom Caucus in the new Congress by reshaping it into a “European-style coalition government” in which the influential hard-right faction orchestrates rule-making and committee assignments to establish itself as a virtual equal partner with the remaining GOP caucus and the Democratic minority.

The strategy bore fruit for members of the Never Kevin insurgency. McCarthy granted virtually every concession they demanded, from placing them on the influential House Rules Committee to powerful spots on a host of additional committees and subcommittees. Toward the end of the four-day holdout, Gaetz boasted to the press that he’d run out of things to ask for. “We still don’t know everything McCarthy agreed to at the 11th hour,” says longtime congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, an emeritus fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “But the more we find out about what he gave up, the more alarmed we all should be. Just to begin with, there’s the news that they changed the rules in this committee to investigate every government committee, which will almost certainly be dominated by aiders and abettors of a violent insurrection. Those members will now have secret documents and sensitive intelligence available to them.”

As for the rules positions, Ornstein says that “by putting Freedom Caucus members on the rules committee, we’re looking at mayhem…. The fact is, thanks to the narrow margins in the House, the Republicans can’t do legislation on their own, But they can bring about a government shutdown and bring us to default. What that means is that they will be making a series of utterly untenable demands.” One key concession in the rules package, Ornstein notes, is “this evisceration of the congressional ethics committee. The main motivation of that was not George Santos—it was to make sure there was no accountability for [Marjorie Taylor] Greene, [Andy] Biggs, [Scott] Perry, and others for January 6.”

This is all a fittingly destructive career benchmark for a figure like Meadows. Trump’s last chief of staff was, of course, in continual contact with Perry and other coup-backing lawmakers in the run-up to January 6; he was also, while serving in Congress himself, the representative who sponsored the 2015 motion that ended John Boehner’s tenure as speaker. (What’s more, Meadows came into Congress by taking a North Carolina seat infamously gerrymandered into being by the GOP’s 2010 “Operation Redmap” initiative, so the assault on representative democracy is inscribed in the man’s political birthright.) The House suspended the further use of motions to vacate after Boehner’s leadership debacle—which also saw McCarthy’s first defeated bid for the speakership against a concerted Freedom Caucus opposition. But one of McCarthy’s last concessions to the Freedom Caucus rebels was to restore the motion to vacate, granting them a virtual rolling veto on his own pitiful tour as the Republicans’ nominal House leader.

In other words, the rampant authoritarian thuggery of the Trump White House is now the all-but-official playbook for the legislative arm of the GOP. This is nothing especially new, of course—in the Senate, Mitch McConnell has long been refining the art of short-circuiting the practice of governance through procedural nihilism. But the lesson of McCarthy’s weeklong humiliation before the cameras of C-SPAN is that the Trumpified GOP will use any means it deems necessary to hijack and disfigure the basic operations of the public sphere in order to impose an unpopular and antidemocratic agenda on the country.

The first test case of this strategy promises to be the battle over the debt ceiling. One key reason Gaetz and his Never Kevin allies prolonged McCarthy’s agony was to gain assurance from the incoming speaker that he wouldn’t preside over a straight-up increase in the debt ceiling later this year. This was not something McCarthy was likely to do anyway, but the Freedom Caucus is dead set on using the debt ceiling vote as a pretext to shut down the government and trigger a crisis in the global credit markets to force a series of cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other social spending in Congress. “This seems to be leading us very strongly toward the possibility of a [government] default, which would be catastrophic for the global economy,” Ornstein says. “If that does happen, I only hope the right people will be held accountable.”

What’s before the House majority now is less a legislative agenda than a hostage-taking one—one that aligns long-standing reactionary policy goals with the strategic thinking of a Republican leadership caste that expects to exercise power with gleeful impunity. It wasn’t for nothing, after all, that one of the first protest actions of this Congress’s leaderless GOP was to remove the metal-detecting magnetometers  that were installed outside the House chamber after January 6. Indeed, as the McCarthy drama unfolded, violent attacks targeted the homes and offices of five Democratic officials in New Mexico. It’s long past time “bomb-throwing” was retired as a metaphoric characterization of GOP political stratagems; it’s now far too close to the real thing.

The late-night spectacle of McCarthy’s grim alliance with Gaetz should have concentrated the minds of the Democratic opposition—here was still more proof, for anyone who has yet to read the January 6 committee’s report, that there’s no meaningful distinction to be made between the militant ruling establishment of the Trump-era GOP and the allegedly outlying hard-right fringe. But liberal Washington remains predisposed to sleepwalking past the many imminent threats to democratic governance announcing themselves on all sides. When, during last year’s lame-duck session of Congress, a reporter asked Biden about retiring the debt ceiling limit—an extra-constitutional relic of the early 20th century—he snapped back that such a measure would be “irresponsible.” One can only imagine how Gaetz and Meadows cackled with delight at that news.

Mainstream press coverage stressed how last week’s House melodrama highlighted the dysfunction and disarray of a fractious GOP caucus. But at a deeper level, the Never Kevin uprising betokens something far more serious than internecine strife on the congressional right. It was a sign that our leading legislative body is lurching powerfully into reverse gear, in order to produce a government by crisis and media spectacle, aimed chiefly at pleasing Congress’s new lords of grievance and insurrection. As Ornstein says, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

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