BY RICHARD C. GROSS
“Two souls live in me, alas,
Irreconcilable with one another.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Faust,” 1808, 1832
Republican Kevin McCarthy of California sold his soul and the House of Representatives to the Devil of Congress, the juvenile far-right flank of his party, in exchange for enough votes to elect him speaker.
We’re in for a lot of trouble with a Congress dependent on children to get anything substantive done.
It took four days of pleading, begging, cajoling, promising and telephone interventions by former president Trump for McCarthy to buy with a currency of principles his long-treasured position. It’s a wonder he didn’t surrender out of embarrassment because of the daily humiliation.
But the very high price created a hollow speakership and weakens the House and the democratic process by agreeing to give the right too much power. It threatens the future passage of crucial legislation like raising the debt ceiling to avoid defaulting on the U.S. debt.
And McCarthy gave up a significant shield against being thrown out as speaker: it now will take the vote of only one House member instead of five to oust him from office. How long can he last?
“He will have to live the entirety of his speakership in a straitjacket constructed by the rules that we’re working on now,” Matt Gaetz, R-Fla, one of the rebel ringleaders, told reporters.
The repeated demands of the hard-right minority are nothing less than attempts to seize the country’s levers of power. Good luck to the Democrats seeking to get their agenda through the House, particularly spending bills. The right is aghast at how much Congress has boosted the deficit.
The Republicans recaptured the House with a slim majority during the midterms. They already have a rightist Supreme Court that erased a half century-old law permitting the legal right to abortion. They once had the White House and could regain it in 2024 with Trump or his politically blossoming copycat, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a book burner.
A tiny minority of far-rightists, about 10 percent of the Republican conference, held the House hostage — a legal insurrection on the second anniversary of the illegal violent seizure of the Capitol by an angry civilian brigade — because a stubborn McCarthy refused to give up until he could grasp the speaker’s gavel on the 15th vote.
“I hope one thing is clear,” he said from the speaker’s podium after the historic vote at 1 a.m. Saturday, the longest running election battle for the position since 1859, virtually on the eve of the Civil War. “I never give up.”
Then he swiveled to assure the right-wing that he’s intent on attacking the “woke” Democrats: “We will use the power of the purse and the power of the subpoena to get the job done.”
The rightists want to take charge of the House with a chilling Handmaid’s Tale of an agenda anathema to Democrats, progressives and the majority of the country.
They could prevent the passage of legislation needed to pay for government operations, for example, until they get their way on cutting spending.
They’ve objected mightily to the Biden administration’s recent $1.65 trillion 4,155-page omnibus bill, about half of which goes to the Pentagon. They want to eliminate deficit spending, possibly by cutting Social Security and Medicare. Hello congressional deadlock, making governing impossible.
To prevent lumping government spending into an omnibus bill, McCarthy agreed to permit separate votes on the dozen appropriations bills that include everything from defense to agriculture.
They seem dead set on putting Democrats and their policies on trial before investigative congressional panels, with Hunter Biden and what they perceive to be the “weaponization” of the federal government as targets. That in part would be to avenge the Democratic-led 18-month investigation of the House’s Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol.
At the same time, the disgraced Trump, until recently the feared superstar hero of the hard right who could do no wrong, seems to have lost his political clout because of the failure of candidates he endorsed to win the midterm elections. He reportedly is being ignored by his onetime congressional fans.
Proof? His pleas to the right to vote for McCarthy for speaker, at least initially, were shrugged off while the conservatives tried to find someone among Republicans to do their bidding. Their efforts stalled all House business.
“I don’t think he factors into it,” Marc Short, Mike Pence’s former chief of staff, told The Washington Post, meaning whether Trump has any influence in choosing a speaker. “Do you see any evidence he’s swaying anybody?”
Trump reached the pinnacle of power and prestige in this country and the world. But his screwball personality squandered those years in the self-created chaos of his administration, probably adding to the reasons he lost reelection.
There really is a Dark Side.
McCarthy’s election as speaker may mean nothing more than being a doorman to a House of cards, a weak structure built on the ideology of right-wing demagogues whose proposed legislation mostly would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate.
But there’s a catch: hostage-taking and shutting government to thwart the passage of legislation the rightists don’t like.
These vengeance-seeking far-right Furies of Greek and Roman mythology can be dangerous. Roadblocks must be erected to prevent another shutdown of the government, as a pouting Trump did for 35 days over an appropriations bill between December 2018 and January 2019.
The closure affected 800,000 federal employees. The Congressional Budget Office estimated it cost the country an estimated $11 billion. Think what that money could have done for the poor and the country’s crumbling infrastructure.
If the Biden administration is looking for a containment policy, forget Russia and China. It’s the American far-right that’s the clearest present danger to this country and its democracy.
Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East, the Pentagon and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.