The Chaos Caucus Is Now in Charge
Things are looking up for Kevin McCarthy! Last week it took 15 agonizing roll call votes spread over five days of public humiliation for him to get elected to his dream job as speaker of the House. This week it took him just one drama-free vote on Monday to pass a package of operating rules for the 118th Congress. Better still, no Republicans started shrieking threats at one another on the House floor or had to be manhandled into submission. This qualifies as a solid win for the newly, narrowly elected speaker. Alas, the same cannot be said for anyone interested in a sane, functional Congress.
To claim the gavel, Mr. McCarthy had to prostrate himself before a rump faction of right-wing extremists. Conveniently for members of this chaos caucus, as one of their Republican colleagues dubbed them, kowtowing is one of his top talents. Some of the rebels’ demands got written into the rules package. Other, touchier ones were hashed out behind closed doors in the sort of back-room deal that anti-establishment Republicans are forever railing against. Even some of Mr. McCarthy’s own troops were miffed. “We don’t have any idea what promises were made or what gentleman’s handshakes were made,” Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina bemoaned on “Face the Nation.”
So much for transparency and accountability.
Known unknowns notwithstanding, it’s already depressingly clear that the House’s new Republican majority will be at the mercy of its right flank. And while it is tempting — and fun — to blame the whole mess on the gelatinous Mr. McCarthy, there are larger forces at play. For years, the G.O.P. has been pursuing an increasingly antimajoritarian approach to political power; it seems only fitting that House Republicans are now facing tyranny of the minority in their own conference.
Some of the concessions made to Mr. McCarthy’s opponents pack more destructive potential than others. Among the official measures is a requirement that any increase in the debt ceiling be matched by reductions in federal spending, possibly including cuts to Social Security and Medicare. This is madness. A debt default could prompt a global financial meltdown. Merely threatening one can lead to America’s credit rating being downgraded, as happened during the Obama administration. Only dangerously irresponsible people play chicken with the debt limit.
Another measure makes spending bills subject to an open rules process, enabling members to offer unlimited amendments during floor debate. This may sound harmless, perhaps even charming. Let a thousand legislative flowers bloom and that sort of thing. In practice, it tends to spiral out of control. Just ask Democrats, who tried this route back in 2007. The tie-up caused by members of the Republican minority larding up bills was so brutal that Democrats promptly reversed course.
The most buzzed-about rule change involves the motion to vacate the chair, a mechanism by which rank-and-file members can demand a vote on whether to boot the speaker. During Nancy Pelosi’s (second) tour as speaker, a majority of either party was required to trigger such a vote. The chaos caucus demanded a return to the pre-Pelosi standard enabling a lone member to do so. Mr. McCarthy resisted mightily, for good reason. It was Mark Meadows (then a representative) filing a motion to vacate in 2015 that ultimately led to Speaker John Boehner giving up the gavel. No one needs to tell Mr. McCarthy that since then, his conference has gotten only more fractious and laden with bomb-throwing disruption monkeys. But in the end, he caved.
Among Mr. McCarthy’s unofficial concessions was a promise to give members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus multiple seats on the Rules Committee, which, despite its deceptively feeble name, wields enormous influence as the panel that controls which bills get debated on the House floor and under what terms. As the committee’s website boasts, it “has the authority to do virtually anything during the course of consideration of a measure, including deeming it passed.” It can “rewrite just parts of a bill, or the entire measure. In essence, so long as a majority of the House is willing to vote for a special rule, there is little that the Rules Committee cannot do.” Picture, if you will, a small band of Lauren Boeberts holding the Rules Committee hostage and, by extension, the entire legislative process.
Many of the changes the anti-McCarthy rebels pushed for are ostensibly about making the House more small-d democratic by empowering the rank and file. But as things are heading, power is simply being shifted from leadership, which is responsible for looking out for the conference as a whole, to a coterie of extremists obsessed with burnishing their personal brands. The result is expected to be not a fairer, more equitable House so much as a wildly dysfunctional one.
This sorry situation isn’t just about one man’s weakness or ambition. It is about a party that nurtured its aggrieved, paranoid, rage-filled, anti-establishment, antigovernment elements for years. The burn-it-all-down faction now has everyone, not just the speaker, by the nose hairs.
Republicans can blame it all on Mr. McCarthy if it helps them sleep at night, but they shouldn’t kid themselves: The next wave of House dysfunction is on the antimajoritarian, chaos-courting lot of them.
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