By Emily Jashinksy
The real story of McCarthy’s winding road to the speakership is bigger than he is, bigger than the GOP, and bigger than the 118th Congress.
Life expectancy in the United States is at its lowest level since 1996. Teen suicide rates spiked nearly 30 percent in the last decade. Though drug overdose deaths declined from a record high in 2021, they remain 50 percent higher than just five years ago. In the second quarter of 2022, the majority of workers lost a median 8.5 percent in real wages — a 25-year high. Marriage and fertility rates are falling.
A heightened nuclear threat looms amidst the invasion of Ukraine. In the last fiscal year, the government recorded 2.76 million illegal crossings at our southern border, as tens of thousands of desperate people stream into the country every month, trafficked by cartels. American happiness is at a record low. So is institutional trust.
It’s in this dismal context that Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the House speakership faltered over the course of four frenzied days last week. McCarthy finally secured the gavel late Friday by striking a deal with the House Freedom Caucus, or HFC. “It’s the most significant win for conservatives in a decade, possibly the biggest in a generation,” a senior congressional aide told The Federalist on Sunday. “The rules package, if adopted, will actually impact policy outcomes by forcing a transparent and open process.”
“Everything that Republicans and conservatives say they hate — giant, thousand-page spending bills negotiated by a handful of people with little input from anyone else, plum committee assignments reserved for insiders, and a closed off amendment process — is addressed here,” the aide added.
From John Boehner to Paul Ryan to McCarthy, House conservatives are gradually shocking Republican leadership into representing their own voters. When the GOP failed to win back a major margin in the House, members of the Freedom Caucus did the math and realized they could flex some muscle. Even before Election Day, McCarthy had courted the HFC, as we reported in October. He made friends of Reps. Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene. He talked about reversing certain Pelosi-era power grabs.
Indeed, this is exactly what frustrated members such as Rep. Dan Crenshaw. From their perspective, HFC went into the speaker vote having already won. That’s actually true, but it’s also true they won even bigger as the week wore on. Those two points are not mutually exclusive, though it seemed like the baby might get thrown out with the bath water more than once.
While the political establishment preferred to focus on personalities and melodrama, the concessions HFC members managed to wring out of McCarthy are shockingly consequential. Without another speaker candidate waiting in the wings, serious negotiators like Rep. Chip Roy knew they had the upper hand and could push the GOP establishment much further than anyone imagined.
“They just achieved more in the last week than any other group of conservatives has in years,” the senior congressional aide said. “They knew the power of their vote and they held together until they negotiated an acceptable agreement.”
Again, the version of McCarthy that would have taken the gavel had HFC not played hardball would already have constituted a win for them. But what they ended up getting became something much bigger.
Rep. Andrew Ogles provided a list of McCarthy’s concessions to journalist Roger Simon, which is quoted in full below:
1. “As has been reported, it will only take a single congressperson, acting in what is known as a Jeffersonian Motion, to move to remove the speaker if he or she goes back on their word or policy agenda.
2. A ‘Church’-style committee will be convened to look into the weaponization of the FBI and other government organizations (presumably the CIA, the subject of the original Church Committee) against the American people.
3. Term limits will be put up for a vote.
4. Bills presented to Congress will be single subject, not omnibus with all the attendant earmarks, and there will be a 72-hour minimum period to read them.
5. The Texas Border Plan will be put before Congress. From The Hill: ‘The four-pronged plan aims to ‘Complete Physical Border Infrastructure,’ ‘Fix Border Enforcement Policies,’ ‘Enforce our Laws in the Interior’ and ‘Target Cartels & Criminal Organizations.’’
6. COVID mandates will be ended, as will all funding for them, including so-called emergency funding.
7. Budget bills would stop the endless increases in the debt ceiling and hold the Senate accountable for the same.”
On Thursday evening, Kimberley Strassel published a helpful overview of the rules, arguing, “These changes will produce the first functioning House in years, even as they tie the hands of spenders.” Strassel is skeptical of the motion to vacate but correct that concessions secured by the HFC will shift Congress closer to functionality. One way to tell the HFC scored some real wins is to see how bitterly the GOP establishment opposes the deal.
Another is by taking a look at the left. HFC’s stand against McCarthy reignited a bitter debate over “Force the Vote,” a movement that sought to pressure “the squad” into withholding support from Nancy Pelosi’s speaker bid until she agreed to bring “Medicare For All” up for a floor vote. (HFC, by the way, just pulled this same maneuver but with a bill on term limits.) Why do that, the argument went, when the gesture would only be symbolic?
Pelosi’s margin was a bit more comfortable than McCarthy’s, but the left is right that our health care system is a disaster the public won’t tolerate much longer. Perhaps the plan’s detractors were correct that pushing Pelosi on a symbolic vote was an unwise use of political capital. That may well be true. But in HFC’s case, they gambled and won. They realized McCarthy needed them more than they needed him, given the public’s exasperation with establishment leaders. Few minded the lively four-day demonstration of republican government outside the Beltway.
Those who fret that this veritable laundry list of demands will create chaos are correct. It probably will. McCarthy, thanks to the motion to vacate, will lead with the immediate threat of his ouster constantly looming. Government shutdowns will be on the table. Single-subject bills will have their drawbacks. But a dysfunctional House got us here, and there’s no functional way to leave dysfunction.
None of this should be surprising, and none of it is cause for panic. Congressional leadership is old and comprised of people who’ve presided over recent decline, all while amassing more power. Last week, a group of Republicans tried to take some of that power back and won.
It was messy. Some of the negotiators are goofballs. While there’s no guarantee the HFC will wield these new tools wisely, there’s virtually a guarantee that without undercutting the power of congressional leadership, decay will continue apace.
From 30,000 feet, a four-day delay in the speaker vote is hardly the outrage pundits framed it as. The rules package is mostly unobjectionable institutionalism. Sure, it’s remarkable HFC won these concessions, but only because party leadership in D.C. is so unaccustomed to losing. The press painted all of the HFC with the same broad brush and missed the real story: They out-negotiated leadership and changed the House in a serious way.
Asked in September whether he expected a challenge from HFC if Republicans took back the House, McCarthy told me, “I’ve had people push and do different things. But if you’re able to be running for speaker, that means all you’ve ever done is win. And I don’t think you change the coach then.”
He found a way to win on Friday, but the hard part is just beginning. The real story of McCarthy’s winding road to the speakership is bigger than he is, bigger than the GOP, and bigger than the 118th Congress.