By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made news this week when he declared that, should he become speaker next year, the House would likely cut off funding for Ukraine and would attempt to use the debt limit to force cuts to popular social programs.
His comments tell us quite a bit about what he would be like as speaker if Republicans take back the House.
For one, it sounds like he is ready to put the most radical Republicans in charge, even when that means disregarding what the majority of the Republican conference wants. House Republicans supported aid to Ukraine this spring by a better than a 3-to-1 margin, yet McCarthy appears comfortable aligning with the small segment of the party opposing the Ukraine package. It suggests that McCarthy is determined to keep both former President Donald Trump and House radicals on his side, fearing a revolt that could dump him as the Republican leader.
McCarthy appears to be going down the same path as former Speaker Paul Ryan, who was unwilling to play the crucial role of serving as a pin cushion for critics. This is something that former Speaker John Boehner was very good at; as are current Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Boehner, Pelosi and McConnell all know that being part of the congressional leadership sometimes involves absorbing attacks so that electorally vulnerable members of their caucus don’t have to. They were willing to take the blame for burying legislation popular with some voters but ill-advised for the party such as, in the Democrats’ case, Green New Deal legislation backed by very liberal members of the House. Or for pushing ahead with unpopular but necessary measures, as McConnell did when he bought into a convoluted mechanism for raising the debt limit in 2021. Congressional leaders almost always wind up unpopular; but the skilled ones realize that their job is to protect their majority and its goals, not to build their personal popularity.
McCarthy also appears to care a lot more about what Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson — not to mention Trump — say than what a wide swath of Republicans want. Support for Ukraine has been extremely popular among voters. But Carlson in particular has taken a pro-Russia line, and Trump has been far friendlier with Russian President Vladimir Putin than with the Ukrainians. That hasn’t prevented McConnell, for example, from backing Ukraine aid.
Perhaps McConnell just believes in the policy, but it probably also matters to him that Ukraine is popular among Americans while Russia isn’t. McConnell has been willing to carry water for Trump at times, but he also is willing to ignore him or even flat out oppose him to protect Republican senators and Senate candidates. For McCarthy to go on record just before an election with an unpopular position when he easily could have ducked, it shows how different he is.
What all this means in terms of a future Republican-majority House is that we can expect a lot of chaos. Basic governing tasks such as passing spending bills, defense authorizations and, yes, debt limit increases, are apt to be extremely difficult. Real oversight of the executive branch will be ignored in favor of hearings chasing down conspiracy theories and fictions spun by Trump and Republican-aligned media.
Ideas such as defunding the Federal Bureau of Investigation may get real traction in the House. So might impeachment of Biden and others in the administration. Yes, McCarthy did tell Punchbowl News he opposes “political” impeachments and doesn’t see anything worthy of such action “right now,” but he also has established a pattern of caving to Trump and his allies.
Boehner, like Pelosi and former Speaker Tip O’Neill years before, appeared to be mainly motivated by a desire to govern. As a conservative Republican, Boehner had very different policy preferences and priorities than those of the liberal Democratic speakers, but they were all similarly interested in getting things done. And each was good at the job. Paul Ryan never really wanted to be speaker, and wasn’t very good at it; his primary motivation appeared to be changing policy. He didn’t really know how to do that, but he did try.
Kevin McCarthy? So far, he seems mainly interested in holding on to the role — now minority leader, most likely speaker soon — for dear life. That’s not a recipe for success. It’s impossible to know exactly how it would play out, but the chances of a fiasco such as a government shutdown with no plan for ending it or some other damaging event seem unusually high, with all sorts of potential harm to McCarthy, his party and, yes, the nation.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.