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McCarthy’s speaker bid: when Republicans destabilise American democracy

Charis Lister argues that as the GOP’s fractures deepen, American people are paying the price

Martina Canullo / Panoramic

It’s no secret that the US Congress can be dysfunctional. In the last decade, partisan conflict has induced the longest government shutdown in history, and Senate Republicans have repeatedly used the filibuster to prevent Democratic legislation from reaching the floor. But when it took Kevin McCarthy fifteen entire rounds of voting to be elected as Republican Speaker of the House this January, it was a small but significant group of his own party that stood in his way.

The Democrats unanimously voted for Hakeem Jeffries as House Minority Leader after one round of ballots. On the other side of the aisle, around twenty Republicans dissented from the party line and refused to vote for McCarthy; this forced him into tense negotiations where these ‘holdouts’ began to bargain for their own agendas.

Washington is no stranger to these quid pro quo exchanges – they are a potent political currency that is often used to resolve political stalemates in Congress. Crucially, though, the leverage of a withheld vote gives dissenting minorities a unique ability to sway political outcomes, and subvert established power balances.

"One member’s dissent could now be whimsically rewarded with the power to disrupt congressional proceedings, and thwart the speed and efficacy of governing"

This tactic of minoritarian rule aims to rehabilitate a lost Trumpian era. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has tried to reassert conservative power against a Democratic White House and Senate by filibustering key pieces of the party’s legislation. Despite their Senate majority, for example, Democrats have failed to break through Republican filibusters of bills like the For the People Act, that aims to protect voting rights as the foundation of American democracy. The GOP, then, is well-versed in power-wrangling – even when the numbers are against them. But during the Speaker elections, this tactic failed to assert partisanship and instead polarised the party from within.

A major focus of the holdout negotiations was the new rules package. McCarthy agreed to a ‘motion to vacate the chair’, which allows a single member of the House to call for a vote to remove McCarthy from the Speakership at any time. This would give huge leverage for dissenting Republicans to hold McCarthy hostage – particularly for those on the far-right, like members of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus which most holdouts belong to. One member’s dissent could now be whimsically rewarded with the power to disrupt congressional proceedings, and thwart the speed and efficacy of governing. The House’s functionality – that the American people’s representation hinges on – lies in the hands of a minority of Congresspeople who prioritise the spectacle of infighting over real legislative issues.

Many holdouts also bargained for committee assignments. These positions are usually designated by the party leadership through a system of seniority, where longer-serving members are prioritised over newer ones. Once assignments were made a subject of concession, however, holdouts leapfrogged over more senior Republicans expecting positions, and filled the seats themselves.

This has done much more to exacerbate than stabilise the GOP’s intra-party dynamics. On the one hand, committee positions were conceded to holdouts like Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz (both Trump-endorsed election-deniers, who now sit on the powerful Oversight and Judiciary committees respectively). On the other hand, McCarthy also tried to pack committees with his own allies, where again he subverted congressional custom to compensate for his negotiatory weakness. In rewarding both holdouts and allies, McCarthy has inflamed existing tensions within his party by stoking resentment that threatens his already-tenuous authority.

"Politicising central investigations seeking Republican accountability is another GOP survival tactic"

Some outcomes of negotiations, however, have strengthened the GOP’s standing in the House. The focus on committees has led to the creation of a new Republican-led subcommittee, ‘on the Weaponization of the Federal Government’. Chaired by Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan, the subcommittee aims to investigate ostensibly concerted efforts by federal law enforcement and national security agencies to silence conservative voices across all levels of American politics. One target for inquiry, for example, could be the FBI’s investigations into classified documents found in Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home. Through the subcommittee, these may be spun as partisan attacks led by the Democratic establishment to falsely implicate and immobilise Trump’s residual conservative influence.

Politicising central investigations seeking Republican accountability is another GOP survival tactic. In November, for example, McCarthy warned Democrats that Republicans would investigate the work of the Jan. 6th Committee once the party regained control of the House. The subcommittee’s creation is thus another episode in a long series of Republican deflection – of trying to discredit public scrutiny into the party’s complicity in political wrongdoing. What makes it dangerous, however, is the way it validates and institutionalises partisan vendettas as an ostensible reflection of public interest. The subcommittee doesn’t exist to defend the legitimacy of conservative ‘opinion’. It is a populist project, designed to whip up (Joseph) McCarthyite paranoia towards an apparently megalomaniac, liberal state and detract attention from the real political issues that Republicans obstruct.

McCarthy’s concessions threaten these tangible issues the most. The budget was a huge focus of negotiations, and the Republican leadership now has a plan to balance the federal budget within ten years through spending cuts. This is completely unviable without hacking away at Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – which makes little political sense for the party. While the cuts may align with the fiscally-conservative, small-government ideology of congressional Republicans, they don’t align with the GOP’s voting base. Over 100 million Americans benefit from these programs, and despite many Republican voters opposing ‘big government’ in theory, these social programs are fairly popular among them. This gulf between policy and public interest could influence voters at the polling booth come 2024, perhaps to the GOP’s detriment. But there’s still a self-serving politics inherent to these decisions. They may be motivated by the careerist drive of congressional Republicans, who shape entire policy agendas to afford mollifying tax cuts for their billionaire donors. That would take quid pro quo to a whole new level.

"The chaos of the Speaker negotiations, by contrast, left little concealed from public view"

Most alarming is that Republicans have threatened to not raise the debt ceiling if budget cuts aren’t made: the debt ceiling is a legal restriction on how much money the federal government can borrow to pay its bills. Raising the ceiling is a custom practice, but if the GOP imposes a ban meaning the government cannot pay its debts, the economic consequences would be huge. The Treasury would prioritise legally-bound payments first, but funding for other crucial programs like Social Security, tax refunds and the salaries of federal and military workers would freeze. Tens of millions of people could lose out on health insurance, and disability and retirement benefits – making poorer, older and disabled Americans particularly vulnerable. A recession could also be immediate: when the GOP made similar threats in September 2021, economists predicted the potential loss of 6 million jobs and $15 trillion of household wealth.

There are some House Republicans who revel in this political spectacle. They position themselves centre stage, and gleefully declare they will tank the economy if their demands are not met. Their indifference towards the real needs of their constituents – who elected them to Congress in the first place – is insulting. In either scenario - if the budget is cut or if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, the livelihoods and security of working and middle-class Americans could be severely damaged.

Luckily the Biden administration views big spending cuts as a non-starter, and the Treasury is currently working to cut certain areas of spending without conceding to Republican threats. Biden’s resistance may reassure some; in opposing these threats he asserts both his administration and the Democratic party as the real allies of working and middle-class Americans. His executive power to veto budgetary plans, however, may only be symbolic – merely delaying a finalised budget plan and plunging the provisions Americans depend on into further uncertainty.

These negotiations have proved that congressional Republicans have distinctly abandoned any sense of public service – of working to protect their constituents from completely avoidable economic hardship – so they can satiate their obsessions with power-hunting and spectacle.

In the political series The West Wing, chief of staff Leo McGarry remarks to his colleagues: ‘There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how to make ‘em – laws and sausages.’ The chaos of the Speaker negotiations, by contrast, left little concealed from public view. Capitalising from political humiliation and desperation; bargaining away the lives of constituents; House Republicans have exposed just how far they’ll go to climb just that inch higher.

So as inequality and injustice persist throughout America, the concessions made during the Speaker elections show how unconcerned House Republicans are, blissfully and brazenly, by the people who put them there in the first place.


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