As next summer’s inevitable debt-ceiling crisis approaches, the petulant Freedom Caucus is already threatening default

Kevin McCarthy will soon find himself on Jim Jordan's very short leash. - Photo by Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0
Kevin McCarthy will soon find himself on Jim Jordan's very short leash.

CBS News recently estimated that Republicans are on track to win 223 seats in the House in November. There’s a decent margin of error, enough that Democrats could hold onto a narrow majority or — more likely — Republicans could build a comfortable cushion, and the estimate would still be accurate. 

But assume it’s 223. 

Dear readers, there could be no bigger boost to Joe Biden’s re-election than if Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’ bank accounts made an evil money baby and gave it to that crypto billionaire’s weird Democratic super PAC. (Let’s also assume that Biden runs again, which I suspect he will.)

A scant five-vote majority is a massive miss on expectations, for starters. It probably means that Democrats keep the Senate, limiting House Republicans’ ability to do anything more than hold six months of hearings into Hunter’s laptop and indict Biden for, like, breathing wrong. 

It leads to a circular firing squad. What’s left of the establishment (correctly) recognizes that the party squandered an opportunity by running fringe candidates and wants to sever ties with all things Trump; the MAGA crew blames the establishment for not being MAGA enough. 

House Republicans also give Biden a foil, the same way Bill Clinton turned Newt Gingrich and company into cartoon villains ahead of the 1996 campaign. (To be fair, not hard.) When they pass abortion bans and manifest other right-wing fever dreams, Biden can remind voters that this is what a Republican presidency will look like. 

But most importantly, and most consequentially, there’s probably an 80 percent chance that a small, radical GOP majority leads to an economic catastrophe, and Biden will waltz past the burning carcass of America into a second term.

If he wants it anymore. If anyone does. 

To explain: Kevin McCarthy has proven an exceptionally weak Republican majority leader, easily brought to heel by Donald Trump and the far-right members of his caucus. He’s shown no ability to twist arms. He would be a weak speaker under any circumstances. With five votes to spare, he’ll be the weakest speaker in generations, at the mercy of the Freedom Caucus: Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene and so on. 

He will become speaker because they allow it. If they get the rule changes they want allowing them to evict the speaker mid-session — McCarthy will be in a groveling mood before the leadership vote, so there’s a good chance — he’ll remain speaker because they permit it. 

The Freedom Caucus is also demanding that he commit to only bringing to the floor legislation that has majority support from House Republicans, severely restricting McCarthy’s ability to cut deals. Again, he’ll go along. 

At the same time, he’ll need House Republicans to do what they haven’t done in, well, a long time: Govern like grown-ups. 

McCarthy’s caucus is inherently oppositional and ideologically orthodox. Most of its members come from gerrymandered, deep-red districts, and many have no interest in or understanding of policy. Even when Republicans controlled Washington, they couldn’t pass meaningful legislation that wasn’t a tax cut. 

They make grandiose promises about what they’d do with power. In power, they’re the proverbial dog that caught the car (c.f., the congressional shitshows of 2011-2013 and 2017-2019). 

And in this iteration, Kevin McCarthy will be on Jim Jordan’s very short leash. 

With that as background, next summer we will return to the stupidest of American political traditions: the debt ceiling crisis, the pointless yet potentially disastrous exercise in which Congress must increase the amount the government can borrow to prevent a debt default, which would be … well, bad doesn’t quite capture it

Pension funds would implode, the stock market would collapse, credit markets would freeze, businesses would fall, the dollar would go into freefall, inflation would surge and the U.S. would lose its primacy in the global economy. 

A recession is a given. A global depression is possible.  

As we always do during a Democratic presidency, we meandered to the brink in 2021 before Mitch McConnell agreed not to tank the economy for no good reason. This became a normal practice after the Obama administration ransomed spending cuts in exchange for McConnell agreeing not to tank the economy for no good reason in 2011. 

The kidnappers kept taking hostages until Democrats stopped playing along. 

Last year, Republicans did a performative dance before folding. But McConnell is cynical, not insane. I’m not sure the same can be said of the Freedom Caucus.

Axios reported on Wednesday that Republicans and their business patrons are starting to freak out about how Speaker McCarthy would handle a debt ceiling crisis. In no small part, it’s because Rep. Jason Smith, a Missouri hardliner, might take over a key committee. 

And Smith believes he can force Biden to “reverse” his “radical” policies by threatening to default. “If Republicans are trying to cut spending, surely [Biden] wouldn’t try to default," Smith told Axios. 

When this gambit inevitably fails — when Biden doesn’t budge, when Senate Dems tell Smith to piss off, when the few House Republican moderates go weak in the face of terrible poll numbers — will the Freedom Caucus back down? 

Will McCarthy go around them even when Trump and Taylor Greene and the Fox News crowd call him a RINO sellout — even if it costs him his job? 

Everything in McCarthy’s quisling history says he won’t. 

A five-vote cushion means he’ll have very little room to maneuver. If he can’t whip votes from his own side — including from hard-right members who promised to never raise the debt ceiling — he has to make a deal with Democrats. If he can’t bring himself to do that, default is coming.

The alternative, of course, is that we don’t hand petulant children the codes to nuclear weapons they don’t understand. Then again, by a 54-37 margin, Americans apparently think Republicans will be better for the economy

So maybe we’ll get the default we deserve. 


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