You’ve perhaps been following the unfolding drama around Kevin McCarthy’s attempt to wrangle 218 votes to become Speaker of the House when the next Congress convenes in January. That effort seems to be stalling short of its goal; it currently looks like McCarthy can’t afford more than four Republican members refusing to vote for him or else he won’t get a majority — at least theoretically — and right now he has a larger number than that pledging against him.
McCarthy and his allies are screeching at the House Freedom Caucus, from which the opposition to his speakership comes, for refusing him. After all, he got a large majority of the votes from within the Republican caucus in the House when it met after the midterm elections in which the GOP barely won control. That should be enough to command their loyalty.
But what you might not know, thanks to the weak, breezy coverage of the fight for control of the speaker’s gavel in the legacy corporate media, is that the opposition to McCarthy isn’t a personality problem. The Freedom Caucus doesn’t want to make him speaker for principled reasons.
Which is why left-wing commentators such as Ryan Cooper at the American Prospect are referring to the Freedom Caucus as “about 50 of the craziest Republican House members, which is to say, about 50 of the craziest people in the entire country.” It’s considered insane to stand for principle in Congress, you know, because the unprincipled status quo in that body has produced such marvelous results over the past several years.
We’re told, by Cooper, that the Freedom Caucus has made “outlandish demands.” And those demands are now supposedly putting the leadership of the House in jeopardy of being decided by Democrats. We know this because it’s what McCarthy said on Monday:
“We have to speak as one voice. We will only be successful if we work together, or we’ll lose individually. This is very fragile — that we are the only stopgap for this Biden administration,” McCarthy said on Newsmax Monday.
“And if we don’t do this right, the Democrats can take the majority. If we play games on the floor, the Democrats can end up picking who the Speaker is,” McCarthy said.
What your author hopes is that this wasn’t a threat by McCarthy. I took it as one. Because this sort of thing isn’t new — in Congress it certainly isn’t the norm, but in state legislatures it unquestionably can and does happen.
Former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus finagled the gavel a couple of times by collecting enough Democrat votes to offset challenges by conservatives within the GOP in that state. And in my state of Louisiana, the current House Speaker, Clay Schexnayder, was voted down by the majority of the Republican delegation, but gathered up about one-third of the Republicans who did support him and married them to the entire Democrat delegation in the body to subvert the will of the majority of the majority. Louisiana’s near-supermajority Republican House of Representatives has been a farce ever since.
McCarthy’s situation isn’t quite Schexnayder’s. He managed a majority of the majority already, with 36 Freedom Caucus members and others voting against him. Were he to grab a few Democrats to get to 218 it would carry a little more legitimacy than what Schexnayder and his RINO cabal did in Louisiana.
Still, he’s correct that House Republicans have to speak as one voice.
But what produces that? Well, leadership produces that. And what the Freedom Caucus is asking for is leadership, not tyranny.
There were several demands made by the Freedom Caucus with respect to the House rules. McCarthy accepted two of them — one was that the House grounds be reopened to the public and not cordoned off as an armed camp the way Nancy Pelosi had done following the Jan. 6 protests, and the other involved diversifying the House Steering Committee, which governs who gets to sit on which committees.
But there are several others that the Freedom Caucus has so far been rebuffed on. And frankly, regardless of what names the Freedom Caucus has been called by the corporate press, it’s hard to call these anything other than good-government measures.
Here’s what the big fight is about. The Freedom Caucus is asking McCarthy to
Nothing about this is radical. Frankly, there’s a whole lot of this that Democrats would support as a bipartisan, non-ideological matter. Other reforms, like the ones Rep. Matt Gaetz says he’ll ask for when the House convenes in January — including a ban on retired House members lobbying the body, a ban on insider stock trading as a House member, a single-subject rule on legislation, and so forth — will very likely find a good bit of support across the aisle as well.
But probably not by the leadership.
What this is really about is McCarthy wanting the power to run the House as a tyrant the way Nancy Pelosi, and before him Paul Ryan, were able to do.
But Kevin McCarthy hasn’t performed well enough to earn that power. Nobody is questioning the work ethic he showed in trying to elect Republicans in last month’s midterms, but the party grossly underperformed. You shouldn’t gain just 10 seats when you got five million more votes than Democrats did across the country; that’s a failure to turn out votes where they’re needed, and it’s also a failure to spend money where it’s needed.
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McCarthy wouldn’t have the problems he’s having, and he could tell the Freedom Caucus to go and pound sand and still likely gain those 218 votes, if he were sitting on a 245- to 250-seat majority. But he didn’t earn that, and like he says he needs every Republican vote or else he’ll have to go fish among the Democrats, and whatever deal he tries to make across the aisle is almost assuredly going to cost him an equal or larger number of Republican votes.
He’s in a fix of his own making, and that’s because he isn’t reaching high enough. He thinks it’s about him when it absolutely is not. Instead he’s finding out that nobody really cares about Kevin McCarthy’s problems.
McCarthy ought to see this as an opportunity to be a different kind of speaker. He needs to realize that his calling is to restore the House of Representatives to its proper status as the people’s House, which means that it becomes once again a small-d democratic body where each individual representative has the capability to bring bills and amendments and attempt to forge coalitions of support among other representatives of the people.
And a body that draws upon the talents of its members to solve problems by returning to regular order and marking up bills in committee like every state legislature is able to do.
What the House is now is little more than a palace court, where the members are supplicants begging for considerations from the leadership. That’s good for the leadership and the ruling-elite lobbyists and other inner-circle members of the corrupt Beltway establishment, but it’s horrible for everybody else.
As the Freedom Caucus chair Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania — he’s the Scott Perry whom you might remember had his phone stolen by the FBI earlier this year for no particular reason — noted, “Washington, DC is broken.”
Maybe if McCarthy would agree to help fix it, he’d find his path to the speakership open. If he can’t agree on that, then maybe it’s a sign he shouldn’t be speaker.
And maybe we should thank the Freedom Caucus for bringing this matter to a head.