Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the leading candidate to become the next speaker of the House, should make two pledges to his caucus: He will fight passionately for their causes and principles, and he will not risk a shutdown or default of the U.S. government. Some of his colleagues may view those pledges as contradictory, but they are not, and McCarthy should explain so before he is elected.
Why anyone would want to be in charge of the fractious Republican-majority House of Representatives just now is a deep mystery, but McCarthy appears to crave the speaker’s gavel – and to have enough support to win it. If he does, he'll need every ounce of the famous energy and bonhomie that helped propel him, after only eight years in Congress, to his present position of majority leader.
As it was for outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio), the challenge for McCarthy would be to herd the cats in his caucus, including especially the minority that sees its purpose as scratching and clawing and howling in opposition to any hint of compromise with the Obama administration. Though not necessarily interested in governance in any positive sense, this group has enough influence to thwart the more pragmatic majority of GOP members, and, potentially, to topple McCarthy from the speaker’s chair, should he get it, just as they precipitated Boehner’s downfall.
Boehner’s resignation cleared the way for passage of a temporary spending bill last week, good news only briefly as it will leave the country facing the double prospect of shutdown and default in mid-December. So now would be a good time for McCarthy – indeed, for any and all candidates for speaker – to pledge not to permit a government shutdown and not to block increases in the federal debt ceiling, no matter how loud the clamor of GOP ultras to the contrary.
To be sure, such a promise might seem to conflict with the Republican base’s demand for leaders in Washington who will “fight.” And, in that sense, it would be politically risky for McCarthy. The fact is, however, that the Republican majority has many points of leverage; it has succeeded in blocking much of President Obama’s agenda while dramatically reducing government spending. By contrast, any strategy that brings the United States to the brink of paralysis or default has no chance of achieving its ostensible policy goals and a very high chance of causing the Republican Party political damage. The latter is no particular concern of ours, but we mention it just to underscore what a no-brainer this should be for McCarthy. It should also be relevant that a shutdown or default would cause enormous damage to the nation’s standing abroad, its economy and millions of working people who depend on it.
In swearing off these two pressure tactics, the GOP would in no way have to renounce others, including some that many Democrats would consider unacceptable hardball – but which are well within the lawful purview of a congressional majority. There is no shortage of ways Republicans can express their supporters’ discontent with how government operates short of preventing it from operating at all. Unless the next speaker can get the ultras in his caucus to grasp these realities from the get-go, he may eventually find himself just as vulnerable to their disruptions as Boehner was.