It was kind of fun at the beginning, wasn’t it? The 118th Congress kicked off not with the routine vote for Speaker and the swearing in of members, but with a four day goat rodeo in which poor, gutless Kevin McCarthy (the very model of feckless masculinity for which my brother and I reserve the term “bagless upright”) struggled to make sufficient concessions to buy the votes of the last hard core holdouts. He was desperate. He all but walked around the chamber like some sort of half-assed ball park vendor lugging a tray full of free beer and hot dogs, pleading with the assembled white folk to help themselves, and please, oh pretty please, lend their support. It was a mad, appalling, self-destructive, archetypal MAGA shit show, dragging on all week, the gridlock getting progressively worse as the machine shed parts and the gears kept grinding metal. Over on the minority benches, the Dems, fully united, all present and voting as a bloc, munched happily on their popcorn and watched the show. “Is it Christmas?” asked former Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill on Nicole Wallace’s show that first Tuesday, as everybody watched McCarthy writhe and sweat on the House floor, losing vote after vote in his bid to succeed Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. “It feels like Christmas”.
Yes, but…as Claire reminded us later, the schadenfreude was indeed delicious, but the spectacle of GOP dysfunction was actually a frightening thing to behold, when thinking past the immediate agony of Kevin to the two years of Republican House lunacy to come. Jen Psaki, stellar former Press Secretary and now an MSNBC talking head, adopted a similar cautionary tone, noting that a party that couldn’t get its act together when simply setting up housekeeping as the House majority was not an organization that could, say, pass a budget. Soon enough it would come time to govern. What then? It was a sobering thing to ponder as we all gawked at three more days of voting, horse trading, pleading, bargaining, conceding, conceding a little more, begging, grovelling, conceding just a couple of other things, or six, or ten, and then voting again, until the increasingly hideous affair finally resolved itself at around 12:30 on a Saturday morning. Kevin emerged beaming, having finally won the prize he’d coveted for his entire political life. You practically expected him to wield the cherished gavel and exclaim my precious! He thanked Donald Trump profusely for his (not really!) unwavering support, and glowed like a new bride, as if he hadn’t just given away the crown jewels to gain the throne.
Now that the details of the deals he made are becoming clear, it’s obvious that not only will McCarthy’s role as Speaker be constrained and diminished like never before (“self-gelded” in Charlie Sykes’s apt description, “the incredible shrinking speakership” according to Nancy Pelosi), but everything we all feared, the very worst possible scenario, had become reality. Basically, the Freedom Caucus is now in the driver’s seat. In particular, McCarthy promised the usual squad of loons plum committee assignments; agreed to a new rule that any one member of his caucus may, at any time, bring a motion to the floor to end his speakership; gutted the House Ethics Committee; appointed the execrable dumbass Jim Jordan, already Chair of the highly important Judiciary Committee, to run a special sub-committee on “the weaponization of the Federal Government” (i.e., to investigate all the ways that the awful DOJ either already was, or could soon begin, being mean towards Donald, the January 6 insurrectionists, assorted coup plotters in Congress, and so on); re-established the long since rescinded “Holman Rule”, which allows the House to tweak the annual federal budget to such a level of granularity that the GOP could de-fund not only specific departments (like, say, the DOJ?), but the employment of specific individuals (perhaps, let’s say, Special Counsel Jack Smith?); and then, according to reports, added a secret three-page addendum to the House Rules handing out still more powers and rights to satisfy various Freedom Caucus demands. It was pretty much the whole store. The shelves were bare. By the end of it, final holdout Matt Gaetz was saying he’d wracked his brains but “couldn’t think of anything more to ask for”, and finally abandoned his opposition to Kevin on the 15th vote after, apparently, getting a mafia-style talking-to from Rep. Tim Burchett, have a look:
This after a near physical assault by Mike Rogers (R) (Alabama) was thwarted when other House Republicans restrained him by grabbing him around his head, which close shave still wasn’t enough to do the trick:
Oh yeah, there was one other thing: Kevin promised not to raise the debt ceiling unless the Democrats agreed to slash the federal budget, with a particular emphasis on curtailing, you guessed it, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
So, well, shit. Back to another circuit on the goddam debt ceiling merry-go-round.
This was no surprise, of course. The GOP has been running this extortion racket for years, whenever a Democrat sits in the White House. I wrote at some length about the last iteration, back in September 2021:
…in which I explained the particulars of this peculiar recurring crisis, the like of which afflicts no other government I can think of off the top of my head, and the global economic consequences that would flow from a U.S. default on its debts. Assuming you don’t want to wade through one of my old essays, but would still like it all explained clearly, you can watch this video posted by Politics Girl (who ought to get some sort of Pulitzer for her repeatedly cogent analysis of the ongoing lunacy):
The thing nobody in the American public seems to understand is that raising the debt ceiling is not about deciding to engage in more deficit spending. At this point, that decision has already been made. The debt ceiling is about funding the spending that has already become law under budgets already approved by Congress. In many instances of this blackmail routine, the GOP is actually threatening to renege on budget obligations incurred when a Republican was in the White House, and a GOP majority in Congress voted for them. The cajones, eh? It’s always the same with this bunch. They slash taxes, spend, spend, spend, and run up enormous deficits when they hold power, then threaten to declare national bankruptcy when the Dems are back in control. Look at this handy bar graph:
Red is Republican, blue is Democrat. Note that deficit spending balloons under Republican administrations, and only begins to be brought under control when Democrats are once more in charge (with the only surpluses in living memory having been recorded when Democrat Bill Clinton was in the Oval). This pattern has held, and then some, under Biden’s tenure. In 2020 the annual deficit was a whopping $U.S. 3.1 trillion; the 2022 budget has seen that figure more than halved, and now stands at $U.S. 1.4 trillion, and would go lower still, dramatically so, if only the Dems still controlled tax policy. The national debt rose by over seven trillion when Trump was in office, but now, as usual, the Republicans are back to being fiscal conservatives, the ones looking out for their childrens’ futures by fighting nobly and tenaciously against runaway spending. They’ve actually sold this horse shit to the broad American public. People actually believe that it’s the Dems who are reckless with spending, while it’s the sad lot of the Republicans to struggle, whenever they regain power, to bring the runaway train back under control.
Which brings me back once again to my favourite GIF, applicable to so many situations these days:
Anyway, once again, here we are. Round and round we go. The key question is whether this time it’s different, and the Freedom Caucus really will drive the world economy off the cliff if they don’t get their way. I’m worried. These crazy bastards obviously feel closer than they’ve ever been to finally, at long last, gutting America’s social safety net and making it as if FDR never lived, and they might just be big enough lunatics to go all the way. I know they’ve played this game of chicken a hundred times before, and I know they’ve always caved, but this time, they might not.
There are a couple of ways that the Dems might be able to thwart them. Constitutional scholar Lawrence Tribe has proposed that Biden doesn’t need Congressional authorization to borrow beyond the current debt ceiling, owing to the wording of the 14th Amendment:
Section 4 Public Debt
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.
Tribe argues that this creates a constitutional mandate to make good on debts already incurred, and to the extent any act of Congress is inconsistent with that requirement, it’s unconstitutional. Of course, any such argument would wind up in the ruthlessly partisan Supreme Court, so, you know, don’t count on it.
Failing that, there’s the possibility of a “discharge petition”. This is an arcane procedure through which a bare majority of House members can force a vote on a bill even if the Speaker refuses to bring it to the floor, and, given the Republican’s razor-thin majority of 222-213, the Dems would need to peel off just five sane Republicans to vote along with them to get it through (subsequent to which, presumably, those five would also vote to raise the debt ceiling), thus end-running the crisis. Of course, for this to work, there would need to be five House GOP members who were both:
(a) sane, and
(b) ballsy enough to break with leadership and the Freedom Caucus,
and that doesn’t seem to be the case.
There are other ideas too, including the amazing, borderline hilarious, yet apparently absolutely legal option of just minting a platinum coin in a denomination of several trillion bucks, which you can read about here:
None of it seems terribly likely, but who knows? Desperate times and all that.
McCarthy, who was so covetous of the Speaker’s gavel that he moved his stuff into the Congressional office before he’d even been elected, opined a few weeks ago that it didn’t matter how slim his majority was, he’d still be Speaker, “and they don’t give out gavels in small, medium, and large”. Oh, but they do, don’t they laddie? And you just handed yourself an extra-small one, leaving it to the moonbats of the Freedom Caucus to decide our fate, and, perhaps, damn us all to economic hell.
Never mind, wee Kevin will still get to stand at the dais and make that impressive bang bang bang sound when it’s appropriate, and that’s what really matters.