Politics / September 13, 2023

Is Kevin McCarthy Burning Down the House?

The Republican speaker has caved to the party’s right flank by greenlighting impeachment hearings against President Biden. But an impasse over spending legislation may trigger a shutdown.

Chris Lehmann
Kevin McCarthy shutdown

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy gestures towards the newly installed nameplate at his office after being sworn in as speaker of the 118th Congress in Washington in January 2023.

(Matt Rourke / AP Photo)

As Congress reconvened this this week after its six-week summer recess, the House GOP majority is nearing maximal conditions of chaos. The primary order of business on its agenda is to reach a deal to continue funding the government by the end of the month—yet many Republican House members are only interested in exploiting that deadline as leverage to initiate ill-specified impeachment hearings against President Joe Biden, continue tantrum-throwing probes of the president’s son Hunter, and implement draconian and xenophobic “border security” measures. In other words, the House GOP caucus is eager to barter away its mandate to govern with a semblance of adult responsibility for the privilege of transforming the Capitol into a rolling spectacle of inquisitorial culture warfare.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, being Kevin McCarthy, has already started to hew to this harebrained agenda, granting a provisional go-ahead to three House committees to launch vibes-based impeachment inquiries against President Biden. (How threadbare is the case that hard-right members of the GOP caucus are looking to compile against Biden? Well, this threadbare: South Carolina Representative Nancy Mace confessed to CNN’s Kaitlan Collins that the pending impeachment inquiries won’t be tasked with scrutinizing existing evidence, but rather will try “to get more evidence”—a backward-spooling model of legal process that the terms “fishing expedition” and “kangaroo court” were coined to describe.)

Weary followers of the House’s escapades may recall that a preliminary version of this guignol took place a mere three months ago, when McCarthy cobbled together a deal to prevent the country’s spending deficit from blowing by its arbitrary debt-ceiling limits. But the pending budget drama will play out on a different order of magnitude, since a failed spending deal would spark a full-scale government shutdown. As McCarthy well knows, prior shutdown crises played a major role in derailing the speakerships of his predecessors Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and Paul Ryan. And House members clustered around the smash-and-grab Freedom Caucus know just as well that the threat of a shutdown is a golden opportunity to extract still more concessions from the epically invertebrate McCarthy.

“Kevin McCarthy has less spine than all the previous Republican speakers put together,” says Norman Ornstein, senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. In dealing with the rabid impeach-and-see-what-happens Freedom Caucusers, McCarthy is in a no-win bind, Ornstein argues: “There’s nothing he can do that’s going to get them to be fearful of him or respectful of him. He’s put himself in a box, where he’s tried to dance around things like a shutdown and the debt-ceiling issue. But it’s like throwing a pack of rabid, vicious, hungry dogs whatever bone you can find, which in this case is the impeachment inquiry.”

Former GOP insiders concur. “Once he won the speaker fight, even if the most irrational, insane, and performative boobs in the caucus were aligned against him, he had the leash,” says Tim Miller, communications director for the 2016 Jeb Bush campaign. But, Miller notes, the perverse calculus of power in today’s GOP is that the more you let actual governing that occurs on your watch, the more you’re treated as a traitor to the sacred cause of tearing shit down: “The more of those deals you do over the objections of the MAGA side of the caucus, the more vulnerable you become.”

To compound the perverse logic here, McCarthy knows that courting a shutdown would likely spell doom for his narrow five-seat House majority come the next election cycle. “The debt-ceiling thing, voters don’t really vote on things like this,” Miller notes. “To the extent that there’s an image there, it’s more about the vibe: You can explain it to them in a way that makes it seem rational that we should be making some spending cuts. But a government shutdown is a totally different thing.” Hard-right representatives “are not even trying to make an argument that would appeal to the median voter. They’re nihilists. And as we’ve seen with Boehner and Gingrich, Republicans are going to have to hold the bag on a shutdown. They become the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

That’s no deterrent for the true-believing members of the Freedom Caucus, who all hail from deep red districts, many of them gerrymandered by Republican state legislatures for the precise purpose of insulating their representatives from any meaningful accountability for their actions. “A lot of these people on the MAGA right want to destroy government; they would be delighted with a shutdown,” Ornstein says. “Some of this mindset reminds me of the George W. Bush administration and the occupation of Iraq. They all said then that ‘when we bring down Saddam, we’ll have a flourishing democratic government that will be free,’ which was of course total nonsense. And what the MAGA right says now is that if we can blow up government, people will taste freedom and will not go back. So the willingness to go through an extended shutdown is there.”

All of which leaves McCarthy pretty much in the same position he was in January, when he realized his cherished career ambition to be House Speaker in a crushing marathon of 15 caucus votes, with the restive nihilists in the Freedom Caucus securing concession after concession. One key giveaway was the poison pillf known as a motion to vacate—a procedure that permits a single House member to challenge McCarthy’s speakership at any time. That threat is a professional sword of Damocles, wielded by some of the most obstreperous and demented characters imaginable. Even before Congress returned, bomb-throwing hard-right Florida Representative Matt Gaetz had been canvassing Democratic House members to back a prospective challenge to McCarthy’s speakership.

Still, Gaetz’s challenge is unlikely to gain traction for the same reason that McCarthy prevailed in the Freedom Caucus hazing over his initial speaker vote: No one else could plausibly stomach the job of leading the House Republican caucus. “You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” Miller says. Maybe if [House Judiciary Chairman] Jim Jordan decided if he was going to stand, that could be a credible threat, but he won’t. So until and unless that changes, they don’t have anybody to beat him with. And McCarthy has shown he’ll bend over backward to appease the most insane members of his caucus.”

Thanks to the dual logic of insular gerrymandering and unhinged Kulturkamp confrontation, the insane House nihilists will keep driving the GOP agenda. Miller relates how The Bulwark—the Never Trump publication he now writes for—has conducted focus groups among MAGA voters that have highlighted a grassroots drive to create ever greater levels of performative chaos in the halls of Congress. “You ask them, and you know, for a governor, they want someone who can actually govern. But when MAGA voters are discussing their House representatives, they want to know why they can’t be more like Marjorie Taylor Greene. When it comes to Congress, what MAGA voters want is burning the house down—targeting the perceived excesses of liberalism and the deep state. That’s always the focus.” With that as a de facto mandate, it’s no surprise that it takes someone of Kevin McCarthy’s unsightly quisling temperament to serve as the GOP’s notional legislative leader. “This is not a political party anymore,” Ornstein flatly says. “It’s a radical cult, and it’s ungovernable.”

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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