The great American journalistic cliché is to assert after a bruising political campaign that the election was the easy part – and that what follows is the hard part. So if Kevin McCarthy’s 15-ballot, concession-riddled, floor-brawling, after-midnight election as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was the easy part, what could the hard part possibly look like?
The short answer: disarray, maybe a disaster.
Trench warfare in the well of the House. Sharp disagreements between the Senate, with its ultra-slim Democratic majority, and the House, with its unusually narrow Republican majority. Continued warfare within the Republican caucus. Repeated battles between the White House and the Republicans. Lengthy investigations into the Biden family and the Biden administration. A possible strident but ultimately doomed impeachment drive, surely against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, perhaps even against President Joe Biden. And the return to the campaign trail of Donald Trump, who of course swiftly claimed credit for Mr. McCarthy’s hairline victory and who leaves upheaval in his wake with his every step.
The 20th century was known in military history for the advent of “total war,” a phrase introduced in modern times by German General Erich Ludendorff in his 1935 Der Totale Krieg. In the United States, the 21st century is well on its way to being known for political total warfare.
Since the very beginning of the century in the U.S., the fights seem never to end: The 2000 election took 36 days and a Supreme Court ruling to push George W. Bush into the White House over Al Gore; the disputes over the 2020 election remain fresh and raw; the fights between Republican regulars and Republican rebels have been going on for more than a dozen years, with two House speakers the victim of the conflicts and Mr. McCarthy, through his own concessions, constantly on the precipice of becoming the third; and the Democrats still are unable to resolve whether they are the party of workers or of university-educated coastal elites.
All that is a measure of the political climate in the country. And Washington is the ultimate target of the dangerous atmospheric river of dissent, discontent and dysfunction that is flowing over the continent, producing high winds and leaving destruction. The situation just became more dire with these fresh challenges posed by the McCarthy era in the House.
Instability in congressional leadership
Mr. McCarthy has ceded the essential elements of the speakership, which are the ability to run the House, regulate the flow of legislation onto the floor, control the terms of debate, and determine the character of the body. No speaker has the power to do any of that directly. Strong speakers do so through willing, disciplined and discerning lieutenants they distribute discretely and discreetly throughout the body.
Mr. McCarthy has relinquished that prerogative and has promised his sworn enemies positions of power. He may soon learn the true definition of “petard,” a word often misunderstood (its actual definition: a small bomb that explodes with a sharp report), and he will become familiar with Hamlet, for he is in the uncomfortable position of constantly being, as Shakespeare put it, “hoist with his own petard.”
Difficulty in governing
The administrations of Ronald Reagan (with a comprehensive tax overhaul) and George H.W. Bush (with a bailout of troubled savings-and-loan institutions) enjoyed legislative successes with divided government. But the 1980s were far different from the 2020s. The parties then were far more disciplined. Though the Democrats ran a tyrannical House – they would pay for that in the first midterm congressional elections of the 1990s, when the justifiably resentful Republicans roared into power and wreaked their revenge – the party leaders (the GOP presidents, Democratic Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.) were on speaking terms and, though strong partisans, were willing to negotiate with each other.
Mr. O’Neill spoke harshly about Mr. Reagan but not with the abiding vitriol and deep contempt that Republicans demonstrated in the past week. The prospects for much legislation – beyond infrastructure bills loaded with bridges and highways in every congressional riding, always a Capitol favourite but perhaps in disfavour by the far-right insurgents – are dim.
The looming crisis of the debt limit
No three syllables in the lexicon of Capitol Hill produce such fright and frustration. Congress has the right to limit the amount of outstanding debt the U.S. government can carry. Currently the ceiling is around US$31-trillion. That’s enough to permit the country to continue to borrow to pay its bills, including veterans’ payments and the old-age income supplement known as Social Security. But by the middle of the summer, the debt obligations will pile up against the limit and ultimately could prevent the government from honouring its financial commitments. The result: default and destabilization.
In recent years, raising the debt ceiling has been a fractious process, even though it doesn’t directly prevent the country from undertaking new spending. Being opposed to raising the debt ceiling has symbolic power and political appeal (by demonstrating skepticism about big spending, a winning profile for conservatives) even as it has financial danger (jeopardizing the country’s credit in international markets and preventing the payment of government bond holders, military personnel, the flow of funds to educational and other institutions and to, among many others, doctors, farmers and multiple government vendors).
The Republican rebels have forced Mr. McCarthy to agree not to allow the debt ceiling to be raised without separate, substantial cuts in federal spending, with the goal of balancing the budget in a decade. How that is resolved is the biggest question in Washington today. The White House and the Senate (though likely only through legislative legerdemain) will support raising the debt limit. The House will stand firm (“Non-negotiable,” in the phrase of one of Mr. McCarthy’s early “Never Kevin” holdouts, Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina).
In that standoff is not only the payment of the country’s bills, but also the entire financial profile of the United States – along with the job security of Speaker McCarthy. Total warfare, indeed.