There’s only one word to capture the energies of the 118th Congress — chaos. Had there been any doubt that the 118th Congress would prove a combative body, the election of Kevin McCarthy as the 55th Speaker of the US House of Representatives has confirmed it. It bodes badly for US climate policy.
Being at the top of the heap comes with certain powers and privileges. McCarthy, as the people’s leader in Congress, is second in succession to the President — just behind the vice president and ahead of the president pro tempore of the Senate.
Speakers usually oversee the House rules committee that controls what gets to the floor for a vote and the rules of engagement. Working with the rules committee McCarthy will create special or select committees — including the number of members and whether the committee will have subpoena or legislative powers.
The vote on the rules package will be the first order of business for the new 118th House of Representatives and its new speaker. With few votes to spare, it will be the first opportunity for McCarthy to test his control of the slim Republican majority and whether moderate Republicans have bought into the deals made by the speaker.
Representative Nancy Mace (R-SC) has been vocal in her opposition to the gang of 20. On CBS’s Face the Nation, Mace expressed support for much of what is likely to be in the rules package but is opposed to a small number of people trying to get a deal done or deals done for themselves in private, in secret. Mace clearly had Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) on her mind when she said it.
Mace indicated she was “on the fence” about voting in favor of the package. Congressman Tony Gonzales (R-TX) had no qualms about expressing his opposition to the rules package. Also, on Face the Nation, the Texan took issue with “a proposed billions-of-dollars” defense cut — calling it a horrible idea in a time of Russian aggression in the Ukraine war and recent saber-rattling by China.
McCarthy, as the leader of the Republican caucus, influences House committee assignments. The power to oversee committee assignments is given to the leaders of both political caucuses. Hakeem Jeffries as the new House minority leader is given similar authority over committee assignments.
McCarthy’s rise to the speaker’s chair is about what he’s been willing to give up to get there. His run started eight years ago. Upon John Boehner’s (R-OH) sudden retirement as Speaker of the House in 2015, McCarthy was thought to be his natural successor having held the second most powerful position as House Majority Leader. In the end, Paul Ryan was elected.
McCarthy’s successful 2023 run bears a close resemblance to his losing his 2015 campaign when the most conservative Republican House members, i.e., the Freedom Caucus, stood between him and his destiny. The far-right accused him of being too establishment for their liking.
Since his failure to make the grade in 2015, McCarthy has done whatever he thought needed to be done to secure his place in history.
McCarthy has succeeded in gaining the gavel but has given up considerable power in the process. What he has promised the most conservative members of the Republican caucus all but guarantees chaos and division within both chambers of Congress.
Speaker McCarthy has agreed to the following demands of 20 House members who withheld their support through 14 ballots.
· A vote to oust the speaker, i.e., a motion to vacate the chair can be called by a single House member.
· A floor vote on congressional term limits will be brought to a vote of the House.
· A member(s) of the Freedom Caucus will be appointed to the Rules Committee.
· The McCarthy backed Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) has promised it will not spend in any open-seat primaries in safe GOP districts. The agreement offers far-right candidates a better chance to win their primaries as CLF favors more establishment candidates.
· The charge of the Subcommittee is to investigate all active criminal investigations going on within the executive branch, e.g., into Donald Trump and those of his supporters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2020. Particular emphasis will be placed on the Department of Justice and the FBI.
· Under McCarthy’s leadership the House must now allow 72 hours before being brought to the floor for a vote. Something that will undoubtedly be supported on members on both sides of the aisle.
· It also includes reinstating a provision to allow lawmakers to propose amendments to appropriations bills. As Speaker, McCarthy has agreed to creating a select committee on the weaponization of government. The Select Sub-Committee on the Weaponization of Government will be established as part of the rules package.
· The new Speaker has vowed to revive the Holman rule as a way to reduce spending by cutting the number and salaries of federal officials. It could also be used to reduce the compensation of any person paid out of Treasury funds and to reduce the amount of money spent through an appropriations bill[i].
McCarthy has ceded a great deal of his power as speaker to the 20 holdouts.
Being subject to a vote of confidence by a single House member is a testament to how little confidence the “Never Kevins” have in him. Since 2015, McCarthy has done everything and more asked of him by Trump and very often members of the Freedom Caucus. And, yet, it appears that it’s not been enough.
It’s fair to ask if McCarthy was willing to give all that up to get the job of Speaker of the House, what will he do to keep it — knowing the ax can drop at any time?
It is not an exaggeration to conclude that the House agenda will be Revenge 1.0. The concessions McCarthy has made is a recipe for more than just gridlock. The 20 holdouts — called “terrorists” by Texas Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) — believe that government is the enemy. An enemy that apparently can’t be fixed without first tearing it apart.
Crenshaw said after the final vote was taken that —
This could have been done without all the drama. There was no reason for us to keep voting and keep voting’ and allow Republicans to make speeches that ‘degraded and just diminished and insulted Kevin McCarthy.
The Freedom Caucus and McCarthy are betting big that what they have to offer is what America wants to see happen. It’s a judgment unsupported by the midterm elections.
The red wave that never was, was a repudiation of aggressive populism. As the former president discovered, the character of the candidates matters. For the most part, the most extreme of the Republican candidates lost to more moderate Democratic contenders — at both the national and state levels.
Coveted women and suburban voters in the 2022 midterms were instrumental in turning the wave into barely a ripple. Although ultra-conservatives like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-FL) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) held onto their seats, the fact remains that candidates who campaigned on Trump’s big lie did not fare well. In any event, the slim Republican House majority hardly suggests that the far-right members who successfully stripped McCarthy of much of the powers associated with the speaker’s chair have a license to rule.
To listen to one of the leaders of the group of 20, Chip Roy (R-TX), chaos in the future should be expected. Roy is on record saying the process of selecting McCarthy was good for Americans to see because it gave Americans the chance to see pushback to power brokers.
According to Roy:
“When you push back on the swamp, the swamp’s going to push right back. We saw that on display. That’s okay,”
What’s disconcerting about Roy’s statement is the far-right’s following the Trump line that anyone who disagrees with me on anything is a swamp creature.
Of the many actions of the 117th Congress and the Biden White House that the Freedom Caucus is most angry about is the $1.7 trillion omnibus bill that included the Inflation Reduction Act — the most important climate-responsive legislation in US history.
It’s significant that the $370 billion appropriated for climate-related policies and programs was not the cause of any hue and cry by midterm voters as the beginning of a socialist takeover of the state. In fact, it was hardly mentioned at all — being overshadowed by the issues of inflation, abortion, and the economy. The new Republican majority is going to make it its business to try to claw back funding for both defense and discretionary programs. One avenue for that could be lowering federal pay scales — with the reinstatement of the Holman rule.
There’s a real danger that the federal government will be brought to its knees over budget, appropriations, and the nation’s debt ceiling which needs to be raised in the coming months. The House Freedom Caucus had few qualms about Trump’s shutting down the government for 35 days over his demand for $5.6 billion for his southern wall.
Whatever else they think Freedom Caucus members and allied MAGA supporters know they may never have the opportunity again to put their stamp on the national agenda. They’ve found in McCarthy a man desperate enough for the trappings of the speaker’s chair to give up the power of the position.
It’s unclear how long more moderate “establishment” Republicans will be willing to go along with Speaker McCarthy’s willingness to cave to conservative pressures. It takes only five Republican representatives voting with the Democrats to thwart the speaker’s agenda.
Fareed Zakaria writing in the Washington Post opines that:
Populism thrives as an opposition movement. It denounces the establishment, encourages fears and conspiracy theories about nefarious ruling elites, and promises emotional responses rather than actual programs (build a wall, ban immigration, stop trade).
The capacity of Speaker McCarthy and the new Republican House majority to govern is uncertain. What is certain, however, is the ability of the Democrats and President Biden to block many of the Republican efforts. Depending on the topic and his own agenda, they will have Senate Minority Leader McConnell’s (R-KY) support.
McConnell is no friend to the MAGA movement. It’s unlikely that he’ll allow many opportunities to torpedo the far-right agenda to pass him by. For the Kentuckian and many establishment Republicans, the next two years will be a time to take back the GOP from former President Trump and the MAGA movement.
What will the congressional Democrats and President Biden be doing while the Republican intra-party battling goes on? They’ll be sitting back watching the drama play out, defending and implementing the works of the 117th Congress, including the Inflation Reduction, the Investment Infrastructure and Jobs, and CHIPS and Science Acts.
What does it all mean for the climate community? Beyond the defensive plays that will be needed to preserve and protect the climate record of the 117th Congress and the Biden administration, climate activists should turn their attention to what’s happening at the state and local levels in terms of implementing the IRA, IIJA, and the CHIPS legislation.
The climate activist community, working with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, should be using the next two years to develop and test various proposals in anticipation of the 2024 elections. The community would also do well to create alliances a set of common themes that activists on both the right and left can support.
I’ve written before and will continue to send the same message to climate champions.
To decarbonize the economy, it is necessary to depoliticize the needed response to Earth’s warming.
Doing this requires compromise on the parts of the right and the left.
Based on the 2022 midterm election results the nation appears tired of the partisan bickering and is ready for members of Congress and the White House to find common ground and get on with the business of governing. The next two years will tell the tale.
A final note to readers: This is an on-going story.
[i] The Holman Rule was first passed in 1876. It’s been used by Congress on and off for decades since then. Most recently, it was eliminated in 1983 but reinstated in 2017 and then eliminated in 2019.
Tease photo credit: The east front at night (2013 view). By Martin Falbisoner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28253642