‘Draining the swamp’ or political opportunism?

By Justin K

Kevin McCarthy’s botched (but ultimately successful) bid to become Speaker of the House has shown that the Republican Party of today is far from the united entity that it seeks to portray itself as. Of particular note – and perhaps concern – was the disproportionate influence that more conservative members of the House held to prevent his accession to the speakership; ultimately leading to an incredible fifteen rounds of ballots before he managed to sway enough representatives to be elected.  While this was an embarrassment for the Republican Party and McCarthy himself, especially given that the Democrats were united in voting for Hakeem Jeffries (the minority leader) in each round of voting, it also has massive implications for the coming two years.

The question we must raise is whether the dissenters in the votes (of which 19 out of the initial 20 were associated with the conservative House Freedom Caucus) opposed McCarthy out of a genuine disagreement on ideological grounds, or was it due to pure political opportunism? Given the deep history of mistrust between the members of the Freedom Caucus and House leadership, with Matt Gaetz – a leading member of the Caucus and a fierce critic of McCarthy – stating that they “struggle with trust with Mr. McCarthy… [as] his viewpoints shift like sands under you”, it seems evident that their ardent resistance was  a culmination of tensions between “mainstream” and “fringe” – ie. Trump-adjacent – Republicans. Combined with their belief that “Conservatives are dramatically underrepresented… on the committees” – with only “one of twenty standing committees in the House [being] led by a Freedom Caucus member” – and their dissatisfaction over what they claim is a “weaponised government” (such as the January 6th Committee’s investigation into Trump and the events of that day), it is clear that there are a wide range of disagreements between members of the Freedom Caucus and Republican leadership – leading to such a stand-off.

On the other hand, it would be an understatement to claim that there was not an element of political opportunism in their opposition to McCarthy. With a Republican majority of only 4 seats, he needed to have the support of almost all members of the party in order to be elected as Speaker. Thus, negotiating from a position of power, they were able to secure several key concessions: a return to one member of Congress being able to propose a motion to vacate (triggering a vote on removing the Speaker from office), legislators being able to review new bills for 72 hours before they are put on the floor to vote (thereby enabling those outside leadership to have more say on new bills), and no raising of the debt ceiling without major compromises (a key concern amongst arch-conservatives who believe that federal spending has increased to unsustainable levels). McCarthy is also rumoured to have promised influential committee roles to Freedom Caucus Republicans, for instance on the House Steering Committee (which assigns membership for most of the committees), House Rules Committee (which sets the rules on procedure in the House – McCarthy guaranteeing to give at least one seat to arch-conservatives) and the House Appropriations Committee (which is responsible for delegating federal funds to different governmental departments and agencies). It is therefore clear that he has offered major concessions in his bid to become speaker – at the expense of severely weakening his authority and strengthening the influence of the far-right within Congress.

In any case, beyond the petty political machinations and dysfunction displayed, there are far-reaching consequences to McCarthy’s accession to the speakership and the increased power of the right-wing in the United States. One of the key roles of the House is to legislate and pass spending bills which oils the machinery of state and keeps the government fully funded and running. However, with his commitment to not raise the debt ceiling without extensive negotiation, his agreement to create a plan which balances the federal budget in the next ten years – somehow without raising taxes – and changes in procedure which allows the amendment and removal of individual clauses on spending from proposed bills, McCarthy’s role in ensuring the passage of bills through the House (especially on spending) becomes infinitely harder. With only a majority of nine, divergent views between the two parties, and even between different wings of the Republican Party threaten to derail future bills which are essential to the running of the country – the notorious lack of bipartisanship in Congress exacerbated by the heightened influence of the Republican Party’s far-right. The cracks are showing, and the potential for a shutdown, as happened for 35 days in 2019 at a direct cost of $11 billion on the American economy, seems higher than ever.

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