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OPINION: The Implications of Kevin McCarthy’s House

By Neil Heriot | January 30, 2023

The Democratic Party lost its government trifecta (when one party controls both houses of Congress and the presidency) in the 2022 midterm elections when the Republican party won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. The implications were immediate: Republicans now had the power to check and block President Biden’s agenda by preventing any legislation from passing the House. In addition, House Republicans were quick to promise that they would commence various investigations of the Biden Administration.

So far, the Republican majority is a good thing. With Democrats retaining control of the Senate, neither party has a free hand to pass whatever legislation they wish; there will have to be serious compromise to create sensible legislation that the broad majority of politicians and the public can accept, while any attempts to pass partisan legislation would be shot down by the other party. Republican investigations, while having the potential to be perceived as partisan, vengeful attacks on an opposing administration, could also be an effective way to hold the Biden administration accountable for its mistakes and excesses. Democrats might not like it, but we live in a democracy where it is important to be checked by others, and this cannot stop simply because it is you who is being checked and not the other person.

This emphasis on checking the Biden administration is particularly important because as I have previously mentioned, voters were still unhappy with the Biden administration even as they (re)elected Democrats over Republicans. The message of the midterms was very clear: we wanted effective, moderate, sensible governance and we do not want to see either side go too far or too extreme simply because it's popular with the base. Although Republicans had a much smaller majority than they were hoping for, they still remained confident they would be able to serve as an effective check to Biden and the Democrats. I shared this opinion as well, but I promptly changed my mind once House Republicans made a fool of themselves in front of a national audience for four days trying to elect a Speaker of the House.

Kevin McCarthy, the Republican nominee for Speaker, could only afford to lose five Republican votes. When voting began, 20 Republicans, all from the Freedom Caucus, blocked McCarthy from winning the Speaker’s gavel. Eventually, they dropped their opposition, but only after McCarthy offered some serious concessions that have turned McCarthy into a puppet Speaker. The actual Speaker of the House is the Freedom Caucus, who if they so wish, can paralyze the Republican Caucus from governing, just like they did in the speaker vote. This goes against the sensible check that voters elected in Nov.

What we have instead is that if the Freedom Caucus is unhappy that McCarthy is not pushing for any extreme, far-right demands, they will use their votes and power to block anything else from being passed. Instead of having a government that is forced to check itself and be responsible and effective, we are at the risk of having a paralyzed, shut-down government just because it refuses to pass the very policies voters sought to reject. The worst thing about it is that everyone else is powerless to stop them from being obstructive. Democrats do not have the votes on their own to stop the Freedom Caucus, and neither do McCarthy supporters if enough Freedom Caucus Republicans (which is 5) choose to obstruct. The ideal solution, it would seem, to simply have Democrats and the non-Freedom Caucus Republicans vote together. This, however, is frankly not possible. Due to McCarthy refusing to cut ties with Trump even after Jan. 6, he presented himself as a Trump loyalist and someone who Democrats should avoid working with, rather than a Republican who might have different views but still cares for this country and is happy to put country above party.

The Freedom Caucus smelled blood when the vote for Speaker began, and they were right. McCarthy might have won the vote and officially won the title of House Speaker, but, despite this, he has not received the power that normally comes with it. In fact, he is even weaker than before. The US government hit the debt ceiling recently, and with it comes the need for Congress to negotiate with itself and President Biden to find a solution. Yet some of McCarthy’s concessions included spending cuts in exchange for allowing the debt ceiling to rise. The Freedom Caucus knows McCarthy needs them more than they need McCarthy. This means that they will play brinkmanship and push for even more radical demands, because they know McCarthy is too weak and cowardly to reject them and lacks the shrewdness to push them aside. I can only hope reason and common sense will prevail before the Freedom Caucus tanks our economy over their debt ceiling demands.

Kevin McCarthy, in his quest for the power and prestige of being the Speaker, inadvertently threw it all away at the first sign of resistance. Republicans learned the hard way voters wanted to eliminate Trumpism from politics, but McCarthy has given it a means to continue and persist in our government. Trump might be weak and no longer the force he once was, but his followers, including the Freedom Caucus, are still here and when given any opportunity they will increase their power and influence whenever they can now that Trump’s power is quickly fading away. McCarthy was happy and celebrating when he finally won the Speaker vote on the 15th ballot. But I don’t think these feelings will remain once the Freedom Caucus begins making their demands. Republicans had been given a once in a lifetime chance to both purge Trumpism and provide meaningful and healthy opposition to Democrats, but based on the actions of men like McCarthy, they’ll hurt themselves and bring everyone else down with them. No one, least of all our democracy, will benefit from that.

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