Kevin McCarthy will be the least powerful and effective speaker in modern history

It would be funny, in a tragicomic way, if the stakes weren’t so high.

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click to enlarge Kevin McCarthy now governs a caucus that proudly refuses to govern. - Photo by Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0
Kevin McCarthy now governs a caucus that proudly refuses to govern.

By the time Kevin McCarthyfinally secured his long-coveted House speakership — after 14 humiliating defeats, after a week of prostrating himself before the Freedom Caucus, after literally begging Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert for their support late on a Friday night — you had to wonder whether it was worth having. 

McCarthy will be the least powerful and effective speaker in modern history. He made himself a willing hostage of the far right, promising votes on radical anti-abortion legislation and draconian budget cuts and, more importantly, granting clowns like Jim Jordan and Paul Gosar the ability to remove him should he ever defy them. He governs a caucus that proudly refuses to govern, a rogues gallery of populist charlatans and intellectual lightweights whose only guiding principle is a commitment to chaos

Chaos we will get. 

A poll published in USA Today this week found that about 60% of Americans think the federal government will do nothing over the next two years because Republicans won’t compromise. I think that’s optimistic. 

Congress doesn’t have the option of doing nothing. It must pass a budget by this fall. And by the end of May, it will have to raise the debt ceiling. It’s hard to see how this House of Representatives accomplishes either. 

Failing to pass a budget means another government shutdown, which if it drags on long enough will produce significant drag on an economy that many analysts believe is already headed for a recession. Failing to raise the debt ceiling will be much more calamitous, threatening “global financial stability,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote to Congress last week

Of the many stupid ideas that Congress has turned into law over the last 234 years, few hold a candle to the debt ceiling, which does not affect how much the government taxes or spends, but rather whether or not it can pay the debts it has already racked up. For more than a decade, the GOP has viewed the debt ceiling as a means to extort its way to policies it can’t win at the ballot box. 

It gives Republicans leverage to take the country’s economy hostage. The gamble is that Democrats, being the responsible party, will forfeit their policy goals to avoid disaster. Indeed, that’s what President Barack Obama (and his vice president, Joe Biden) did in 2011 when Tea Party extremists first pulled this stunt, agreeing to $2.4 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years.

Despite the deal, even the prospect of the United States defaulting on its debts sent the stock market into a spiral and interest rates skyrocketing. 

While Republicans forgot about the debt ceiling during Donald Trump’s presidency — passing trillions of dollars in unfunded tax cuts and giving the Pentagon a blank check — they remembered it the second Biden became president. In late 2021, Republicans in the Senate threatened to filibuster legislation to raise the debt ceiling. 

Of the many stupid ideas that Congress has turned into law over the last 234 years, few hold a candle to the debt ceiling

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But Biden had learned his lesson: Negotiating with hostage-takers encourages them to take more hostages. He didn’t budge. And because a handful of Dems were too chickenshit to end the filibuster and do away with this nonsense once and for all, Congress punted until 2023. 

So here we are — only with Republicans running the House.   

And McCarthy is going back to the old playbook, promising to condition a debt-ceiling increase on a wish list he has no hope of winning. Right now, Republicans say they want to lop off $130 billion from the federal budget the Democratic Congress passed in December without touching the military’s budget — except, perhaps, the parts Republicans deem “woke” — by pulverizing domestic programs the Senate and White House favor. 

The White House has signaled that it won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling, and there’s no reason for Biden to change his mind. The only reason the United States might default on its debt is that congressional Republicans allowed it to do so in hopes of slashing popular domestic spending programs. 

If Republicans go over the cliff — a possibility more likely today than ever before — they’ll own the consequences: destabilized bond markets, cripplingly high federal interest rates, missed payments to social security beneficiaries and federal workers, 3 million lost jobs, and, ultimately, more of the debt they claim as their raison d’être.  

That’s not a politically viable position. But capitulating to reality will cost McCarthy his job. So he’ll go down with the ship, with the rest of the country anchored to his drowning ambition. 

Of course, if McCarthy somehow escapes the debt ceiling crisis, he’ll run straight into the buzzsaw of a budget process that the hard right has already commandeered. To secure his position, McCarthy committed to freezing spending at last year’s levels, inflation notwithstanding, and procedural mechanisms that will make it virtually impossible to get any budget out of the House, let alone something that can pass the Senate and win the president’s signature. 

House Republicans are going to have a hell of a time negotiating with themselves to do just the bare minimum. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they comprise just over half of one-third of the legislative process. 

This is the job Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to win. It will soon become a minefield that even the most skilled legislators would have trouble navigating. And McCarthy hasn’t shown himself to be skilled at much.  

It would be funny, in a tragicomic way, if the stakes weren’t so high. 



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