After several grueling days of groveling to the far-right, Kevin McCarthy eventually garnered enough votes to become the fifty-fifth Speaker of the House of Representatives, but he will ultimately wield a hollow gavel.
In order to secure the speakership, McCarthy made a host of concessions that will undermine his authority and empower extremists in his caucus, one of whom, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, described the deal McCarthy took as confining him in a “straightjacket.”
In turn, Americans can expect few substantive actions from the 118th Congress. McCarthy now lacks both the political will and the concrete power to override the House Freedom Caucus’ calls for investigating and impeaching President Joe Biden and his administration on illegitimate grounds, which is likely to be their primary focus this year.
Perhaps the most debilitating of McCarthy’s concessions is a change to House rules that will enable any member of Congress to force a vote to remove him as Speaker. This motion to vacate, which conservatives used to take down John Boehner in 2015, will force McCarty to continue appeasing the far-right in order to stay in power, given the GOP’s slim five-seat majority.
In addition, McCarthy agreed to assign Freedom Caucus members to coveted committees and crucial chairmanships. Sixteen House Freedom Caucus members, including six McCarthy holdouts from the vote, have reportedly been given top-four committee assignments.
McCarthy’s pact with the Freedom Caucus also includes offering them three seats on the Rules Committee, which will now be comprised of nine Republicans and four Democrats. This concession is particularly hobbling for McCarthy, as those three members can now vote with the four Democrats to block any legislation from getting a full vote on the House floor.
Moderate Republicans are already wary of the early House agenda that has been proposed, as three of the first twelve bills that McCarthy will bring to the House floor are designed to tighten abortion restrictions. Moderates worry that moving further to the right on the abortion issue may hurt the party in the midterm elections and could further damage their political brand in upcoming elections.
The most imminently troubling capitulation McCarthy made is agreeing not to raise the debt ceiling without major spending cuts, which would likely come in the form of reduced spending on Social Security and Medicare.
The last time the United States government faced a standoff over raising the debt ceiling was in 2011, when House Republicans refused to raise the debt limit unless these spending cuts were made. The impasse resulted in the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating, which rattled the stock market and the economy.
After watching McCarthy transfer many of the traditional Speaker powers to the House Freedom Caucus in his quest for power, Americans are rightly wary of his ability to accomplish anything substantive in the role. According to a recent YouGov poll, just one-quarter of the public believes McCarthy will be able to serve effectively.
With McCarthy hamstrung and unable to advance meaningful legislation, he will be forced to focus on the one issue that unites most members in the Republican House conference: investigating and impeaching Democrats in the Biden administration.
To be sure, the GOP’s crusade has already begun. House Republicans formed the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, which is chaired by Freedom Caucus firebrand Jim Jordan, R-Ohio), and is essentially a tool to protect Republicans who have committed federal crimes.
Further, just days into the new Congress, Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Texas, introduced articles of impeachment against Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas for his alleged mishandling of the Southern border crisis.
It is just a matter of time before House Republicans also target Attorney General Merrick Garland for the Department of Justice’s investigations into Donald Trump. In an effort to pander to the far-right, McCarthy has, for months, signaled that he intends to do so, and publicly told Garland to “preserve your documents and clear your calendar.”
But ultimately, the main focus for the bloodthirsty House GOP will be on President Biden himself. They will likely try to resurface old and disproven allegations that Biden, as Vice President, improperly used his position to benefit his son, Hunter Biden, in foreign business deals.
The classified documents recently found in Biden’s former office will also add fuel to the fire, and could become the focal point of Republicans’ investigations into the president.
Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, the head of the House Oversight Committee, has already initiated a probe into Biden’s handling of these classified documents, alleging “another cover-up” by the administration.
These revelations come at a time when Donald Trump is also under investigation for allegedly mishandling classified documents, which were found in an FBI raid in his Mar-a-Lago home.
There is an important difference between the two cases though: for Biden, it appears to have been an innocent oversight, as his own lawyers turned over the documents, rather than the multiple instances of malfeasance by Trump and his team, who asserted to authorities that all documents had been returned, when they in fact had not been. Even so, House Republicans are likely to attempt to liken the two cases in a way that implicates Biden in criminal conduct.
Just days into the 118th Congress, it has become clear how the House of Representatives will operate with McCarthy at the helm: political investigations will be prioritized over substantive legislation.
While McCarthy may have been the biggest loser in his battle for the speakership, it is the American people who will suffer the most.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.