Los Angeles Times

McCarthy’s weak grip on a clown caucus

As House speaker, he might best survive by ceding some power to avoid blame for each stupid thing GOP members do.

- JONAH GOLDBERG @JonahDispa­tch

Kevin McCarthy’s quest for the House speaker’s gavel is a near-perfect inside-theBeltway story because it’s about pure politics and personal ambition without many narrative-muddling concerns about principles, governing philosophy or policy considerat­ions.

McCarthy was never a policy wonk or doctrinair­e conservati­ve, he’s a dealmaker and glad-hander, which is why most handicappe­rs expect he’ll figure out how to horse-trade his way into the speakershi­p.

The only question is what he’ll trade for that precious gavel. And the answer to that question holds both promise and peril.

As it stands right now, if every Republican who has publicly come out against McCarthy votes “no” — not just “present” — McCarthy won’t reach the 218 usually needed on Jan. 3, when a speaker for the new Congress is elected. There’s a little more wiggle room than that because no-shows and non-votes lower the number needed for a majority. But given that 36 Republican­s very likely cast ballots against him in the leadership vote earlier this month, he’s got work to do.

Even if he agrees to mow the lawn or pick up lunch for every recalcitra­nt Republican, he’d still have one of the narrowest majorities in history — probably around nine votes, 222-213. That’s the same margin Nancy Pelosi had coming out of the 2020 midterms, but she had a firmer hold on her caucus and a Democratic president and Democratic Senate to help impose and reward discipline.

McCarthy will have no such advantage, which means no major Republican-base-pleasing legislatio­n will be possible. That’s why everyone expects the House GOP will focus on the investigat­ions of Hunter Biden and the Biden family’s finances, of Anthony Fauci, the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanista­n, the border crisis and, perhaps eventually, impeachmen­t hearings into Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas.

I don’t think any of these potential inquiries are inherently illegitima­te or unwarrante­d. If the Republican­s held serious, sober, responsibl­e oversight on these and related issues, it might even work to their benefit.

Of course, that is an “if ” so large you can see it from orbit. The peril for McCarthy, in other words, isn’t in the investigat­ions but whether he can keep them from being clown shows, with the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene in the center ring. Color me skeptical.

Also, while the threat from the clown caucus gets most of the attention, he also needs to please fiscal conservati­ves as well as moderates, many of whom were elected from very competitiv­e districts, who don’t want to be associated with efforts to, say, impeach President Biden, never mind the Jewish space-laser stuff.

It may simply be impossible to please all of these constituen­cies. Perhaps the solution is not to try? McCarthy could instead agree to relinquish much of the power the speaker historical­ly never had in the first place.

One of the chief reasons the House has become a parliament of pundits, where many members care more about being on TV than governing, is that the speakershi­p has aggrandize­d itself by absorbing legislativ­e functions.

Since 1994, when Newt Gingrich led Republican­s to a historic victory, House leadership — under Republican­s and Democrats — have neutered committee chairs and suspended “regular order.”

These “reforms” were an understand­able response to troublemak­ers no longer under the thumb of committee chairs. And that’s the problem. In a system where the speaker needs every vote, but committee chairs have no power to discipline members, the incentives for troublemak­ing have increased.

McCarthy can cut the Gordian knot by calling the bluff of the rabblerous­ers by giving them the responsibi­lity they claim to crave. The House Freedom Caucus wants him to agree to re-empowering members and committees, restoring committee jurisdicti­on, among other things.

The problem with the speaker’s legislativ­e autocracy is it makes speakers responsibl­e for every stupid thing their caucus does. Returning responsibi­lities to members and committee chairs might let McCarthy more off the hook and could actually lead to more legislator­s acting responsibl­y.

McCarthy is reluctant because he wants the power of the modern speaker. He’d be better served by getting the gavel but loosening his grip on its power.

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