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Opinion | Save the world economy or his own job? McCarthy can’t decide.


May 26, 2023

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After a debt limit negotiating session at the White House this week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy returned to the Capitol and offered reporters an update.

“Let me be very clear,” he said. “From the first day I sat with the president, there’s two criterias I told him,” McCarthy said, raising two fingers. “We’re not going to raise taxes because we bring in more money than we ever have. And we’re not going to pass a clean debt ceiling. And we’ve got to spend less than we spent this year.”

Let me be very clear, Mr. Speaker. Those are three, er, “criterias.”

This might be the most worrying aspect of the default standoff: The full faith and credit of the United States hangs in the balance, and the man sitting across the negotiating table from the president seems to be genuinely off-kilter.

Whipsawed by public pressure from the far-right House Freedom Caucus and from former president Donald Trump, McCarthy has at one moment praised the “honesty” and “professionalism” of White House negotiators and the next moment attacked the other side as “socialist.” He gives daily (sometimes hourly) updates packed with fake statistics, nonsense anecdotes and malapropisms. His negotiators have walked out of talks only to resume them hours later. This week, at a meeting of the House Republican Conference during the height of negotiations, he decided it was the right moment to auction off a stick of his used lip balm as a fundraiser for House Republicans’ political campaigns. (Rep. Marjorie Taylor “Jewish Space Lasers” Greene won the bidding at $100,000.)

The speaker’s erraticism has an obvious origin. As usual, he isn’t leading. He’s being buffeted by crosscurrents. If he bends too much in talks, he’ll lose his GOP hardliners and could therefore lose his job. If he pleases the hardliners, he keeps his job but throws the country and perhaps the world into economic calamity. His job security or thethe world economy? McCarthy just can’t decide.

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The hardliners’ nihilism — their willingness to collapse the economy if Biden won’t meet their full list of demands — gives McCarthy leverage (to a point). In foreign affairs, Richard Nixon pioneered the “madman theory”: If you could make your foes think you were crazy and reckless enough to launch a nuclear attack, they would back down. House Republicans are doing much the same with a debt default.

Several say they don’t believe the threat of a default is real or as imminent as the Biden administration says it is. Some sound as though they are expecting a default and hoping that voters will blame the president for the resulting economic collapse. “I think my conservative colleagues … don’t feel like we should negotiate with our hostage,” Rep. Matt Gaetz(R-Fla.) told Semafor. McCarthy at times seems resigned to disaster, saying “don’t blame me,” and “don’t blame us Republicans,” and “it is not my fault.”

Biden, perhaps spooked by the madmen across the table, offered to freeze next year’s spending at current levels, which would save $1 trillion over 10 years. That was enough to make liberals howl that he had given away the store.

But McCarthy’s problem is he’s dealing with actual madmen in the House Freedom Caucus. McCarthy, during his 15-round bid for the speakership, conceded to these far-right hooligans the ability to toss him out of the job — “vacate the chair” — at will. Now, the rumbles have started. After contours of a deal began to emerge Thursday, 35 members of the caucus wrote to McCarthy denouncing as “outrageous” and “preposterous” the reported details — and insisting McCarthy make new demands, including immigration restrictions.

Letter to the Editor: We need longer-term discipline on the debt ceiling

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), one of the signers, gave a passionate nearly 30-minute floor speech Thursday afternoon accusing McCarthy’s negotiators of “taking the first exit ramp off to cut a deal.” Added Roy: “What are Republicans doing? Running away!”

And Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) warned that the rumored deal “would absolutely collapse the Republican majority for this debt ceiling increase.” If McCarthy has to rely heavily on Democratic votes to pass a debt deal, his speakership would be effectively done.

Hence the speaker’s lurches. On the morning of May 18, an upbeat McCarthy told CNN’s Manu Raju in Statuary Hall: “I see the path that we could come to an agreement,” perhaps by the weekend.

But about four hours later, the Freedom Caucus put the kibosh on that, demanding that “there should be no further discussion” unless the Democratic Senate accepted all of the House Republicans’ demands. Trump echoed: “REPUBLICANS SHOULD NOT MAKE A DEAL ON THE DEBT CEILING UNLESS THEY GET EVERYTHING THEY WANT (Including the ‘kitchen sink’) … DO NOT FOLD!!!”

The next morning, McCarthy’s negotiators called off talks, saying they’ve “decided to press pause because it’s just not productive.”

It happened again Monday. Outside the White House after a negotiating session, McCarthy and one of his negotiators used the word “productive” at least 11 times, along with “professional,” “intelligent” and “respectful.” But the very next morning, McCarthy, facing his restive caucus in a closed-door meeting at Republican National Committee headquarters, told them they were “nowhere near a deal.”

As the world awaits a deal, the speaker has provided regular glimpses into his erratic thought process. Democrats, he claimed Wednesday, “increased the amount of spending to the highest level we’ve ever had at any time in American history, especially to GDP.” In reality, current federal spending as a percent of GDP is barely more than half of the all-time high.

Outside the White House on Monday, McCarthy demanded: “Is it so arcane to say, ‘Should we look at where we’re spending if we’re spending higher than we average do in 50 years?’ Should it be arcane that we pull money back that we appropriated during covid but wasn’t spent?”

Is it so arcane to ask if the speaker knows what “arcane” means? No matter: We’re spending higher than we average do!

Over and over again, McCarthy compares the federal government with a child.

May 16: “This is the equivalent of your child having a credit card.”

Later on May 16: “This is giving your child a credit card.”

May 21: “Think about what a debt ceiling is. It is your child having a credit card.”

May 22: “If you were to give your child a credit card …”

Later on May 22: “To me a debt ceiling is providing your child a credit card.”

Still later on May 22: “It’s like having a child, giving them a credit card.”

May 24: “A debt ceiling, so the American people understand, is having a credit card.”

The mindless repetition doesn’t make the analogy any less bogus. The United States isn’t a child. It’s the world’s largest economy and the guarantor of the world’s reserve currency. It has the unquestioned ability to raise whatever revenue it needs, and it has a solemn obligation to honor its sovereign debt as it has throughout history.

Those should be the relevant “criterias.” Unless you’re dealing with a madman.

The order came out from Mar-a-Lago in early April. “DEFUND THE DOJ AND FBI,” Trump demanded after his indictment.

Brilliant idea! That would leave the country defenseless against international terrorism, Russian and Chinese counterintelligence, cyber and drug criminals, organized crime, and public corruption (looking at you, George Santos).

But, like good little boys and girls, House Republicans joined the defund-the-FBI movement.

“We must defund and dismantle the FBI,” proclaimed Rep. Andy Biggs (Ariz.).

“We have to defang and defund them,” Gaetz said.

“It’s far past time to cut their budget,” added Rep. Dan Bishop (N.C.).

“The only way to rein them in is to cut their budget,” agreed James Comer, chairman of the House Oversight Committee. The Kentucky Republican is also threatening to hold FBI Director Christopher A. Wray (a Trump appointee) in contempt of Congress.

Just this week, the House Freedom Caucus called for defunding the new FBI headquarters as a condition for raising the debt limit. House Republicans even rewrote a ceremonial resolution praising law enforcement to avoid anything that might be seen as support for the FBI. As Punchbowl News noted, the National Police Week resolution originally offered “sincere gratitude and appreciation to the Nation’s law enforcement officers.” The House GOP changed that to say “local law enforcement officers deserve our respect and profound gratitude.”

Alexandra Petri: We can avoid default with these last-minute belt-tightening measures!

Leading the anti-FBI movement is House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio). “The only way we can hold them accountable is to go at the one thing that everybody cares about: the money,” he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity last week.

Jordan isn’t merely trying to defund the FBI; he’s defaming it. As part of his probe into the supposed “weaponization” of the federal government, he has touted the accusations of three FBI agents he calls “whistleblowers” but Democrats call right-wing cranks and Jan. 6 conspiracy theorists who had no firsthand evidence of wrongdoing.

Last week, the FBI warned Jordan that two of the supposed whistleblowers had their security clearances revoked after they “espoused alternative theories” about the 2021 Capitol insurrection. It had concerns about the “allegiance to the United States” of one of them and said another mishandled sensitive information and gave an unauthorized interview to a “Russian government news agency.” A third engaged in “criminal trespass” on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021.

But that didn’t deter Jordan. He proceeded with a public hearing featuring two of the whistleblowers with revoked security clearances. There, with cameras rolling, the man who would defund federal law enforcement thanked the Jan. 6 apologists for their “commitment to … the rule of law.”

The wellspring of crazy does not stop pumping just because there’s a debt crisis. In the last fortnight:

Comer, the Oversight Committee chairman, admitted on Fox News that his probe of Biden family finances is motivated by politics: “You look at the polling, and right now Donald Trump is seven points ahead of Joe Biden,” he said, and that is because “the American people are keeping up with our investigation.” (Trump is using Comer’s probe for fundraising.)

Freshman Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to expel Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) from Congress for his leadership of Trump’s first impeachment. She followed that with a separate bill to censure him and fine him $16 million.

The digital director for Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) was found by Talking Points Memo to have extensive connections to antisemite Nick Fuentes and his “Groyper” movement of white supremacists.

Santos, under federal indictment for financial crimes, appointed himself as his own campaign treasurer before naming somebody else to the job — his fifth treasurer in as many months.

But the winner, as usual, was Greene. In a three-day spree, she filed articles of impeachment against the FBI’s Wray, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Attorney for D.C. Matthew M. Graves, and Biden himself for his efforts “to systematically destroy this country.” For good measure, she also let it be known that Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a Black colleague with whom she had a verbal run-in, made her “feel threatened” because “his physical mannerisms are aggressive.”

Somebody call the gazpacho police!

Tempted to dismiss Greene as a gadfly? Don’t. She now shares lip balm with the speaker of the House.

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