The saga of Kevin “The Conceder” McCarthy’s ascent to the position of US House speaker, or “gavel holder without power,” is multifaceted. He has created a pale imitation of the job by giving a right-wing faction power over the GOP agenda, committee memberships, the appropriations process, and even his own tenure.
The C-Span-watching public got to see important aspects of the legislative and political processes that are usually conducted in secret — for example, the bipartisan practice of members withholding their votes until the end of roll calls so they can implement deals with their party leadership. The failure of the players to emulate football coaches and hide their mouths from the roving cameras opens the possibility that we will learn even juicier details from the lip readers whose employment I eagerly await.
But the most important datum the American public got last week was not new information about the state of our politics but confirmation of what has unfortunately been the case for much of the past decade: The Republican Party is under the domination of those who are willing — and in some cases eager — to emulate the false claimant in the story of King Solomon by agreeing to the destruction of the contested prize — the baby in the biblical version, the speakership in ours — if they were not awarded effective possession.
The recognition that 20 of their GOP colleagues were prepared to prevent the House from organizing unless they could control its operation explains why none of McCarthy’s 203 original supporters objected to his agreeing to the demand that he cut the speakership in half. Of course acquiescing to this diminution of the likelihood that the House will take tough decisions when necessary was ideologically easy for Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and others of the original bloc of hard-liners for McCarthy. But the apparent failure of even one of his other supporters to put serious counterpressure on McCarthy should dispel wishful thinking about the influence of moderate Republicans.
This unchallenged reign of the militant right has two important implications for the state of our politics.
First, it refutes the criticism leveled at Democrats for affecting primaries by highlighting the views of right-wingers in ways that help them defeat more responsible Republicans. We now have a hard list of the number of GOP members prepared to stand up to the extremists: zero. (And of course many of those supposed victims of Democratic efforts were also election deniers.)
Second, it has an even more profound meaning for final elections. The power to veto legislation McCarthy has given the most right-wing members of his party means that the bipartisan majorities that passed the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, and other legislation in the Senate will have no chance to form in the House. Nothing unacceptable to Jordan, Greene, Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Lauren Boebert of Colorado will pass.
By contrast, under former speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, critically needed legislation was adopted over the dissent of the most left-wing Democrats.
Ominously, Republican determination to use the increase in the debt limit as leverage for savaging adequate funding for health care, climate protection, and other vital programs may make a newly shorn Samson an even more graphic example of their destructive impact than Solomon. Greene, a key McCarthy lieutenant in the speakership fight, will be in a stronger position to press her opposition to aid for Ukraine.
Ronald Reagan’s pronouncement that government is the source of our problems and never the appropriate response was more an opening in bargaining sessions with Democrats than an absolute principle.
McCarthy’s empowering of the most conservative faction in American politics, enabled by every other Republican in the House, turns Reagan’s rhetoric into reality. President Biden and the Senate can prevent them from actively making things worse. However, it will be much harder to overcome their obstruction of any legislation that would make things better.
Barney Frank is a former US representative from Massachusetts.