If you want to know if the government is going to shut down on Sept. 30, there’s no need to bother asking House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. He doesn’t know. Without being able to control his caucus, McCarthy’s guess is as good as yours or mine.
Instead, you’d be best served to ask U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who has vaulted from back-bench pariah to lynch-pin power player in Washington, thanks to the patronage of McCarthy himself.
In exchange for her vote for speaker, McCarthy gave Greene slots on powerful committees earlier this year. But with just a four-vote margin on any given day, McCarthy also gave Greene and the other far-right members enormous leverage over him through new House rules. They can call a vote of no confidence at any time to boot him as speaker. Even as he works to negotiate spending packages with Democrats, which he must, or make incremental progress on big issues, he’s never more than a few votes away from irrelevance and disgrace.
In a divided Congress, it’s not going well.
There was a fork in the road on Republicans’ journey toward total dysfunction in the mid-1990s when another Georgian was running the show. With Bill Clinton in the White House, House Speaker Newt Gingrich began an informal practice of keeping legislation from the floor unless it had the support of the “majority of the majority.”
The next House Speaker, Dennis Hastert, gave that approach a name, “the Hastert Rule.” From that point on, a majority of the votes of the House wasn’t good enough to consider a bill anymore — a majority of the GOP majority was required. There were exceptions to the Hastert Rule when the speaker needed Democrats to pass unsavory measures, including raising the debt ceiling. But for the most part, keeping a majority of his majority happy was the way Hastert knew he could keep the Speaker’s gavel.
Fast forward to today’s mess and you’ve got McCarthy’s version of the Hastert Rule, in which McCarthy is realizing that his power as speaker isn’t really power at all, but power sharing. And he’s seeing that by giving away so much of his leverage to get elected Speaker of the House, he is being led by the furthest right members of his caucus instead of the other way around.
You can’t call this arrangement the “McCarthy Rule,” because the Republican from California is very clearly not in charge. Instead, it’s Greene who’s got the veto power over McCarthy’s agenda now. The House is now operating under the Greene New Deal.
Incredibly, the question of whether the government will shut down this weekend, whether Ukraine will get additional American military aid in the future, and whether McCarthy himself will remain as speaker, could all come down to the congresswoman from Rome.
You can’t really fault Greene for going for broke. This has all served her purposes and strengthened her hand. But you absolutely can blame McCarthy for trading away the House Speaker’s power and independence just to get the gavel.
The reality for McCarthy now is that Greene has maximized her visibility with the committee assignments he gave her. Her small-dollar fundraising has raced along as her most outrageous statements have gone viral in hearings. The supporters who cheer for her at her town hall meetings prove there’s a local appetite for her particular flavor of fringe.
Greene also managed to stay in lockstep with former President Donald Trump, even as he actively undermines the speaker, with no downside to her own standing at all. As McCarthy huddled in Washington Saturday to cobble together enough support to move spending bills forward, Greene was one of the only members of Congress traveling with Trump for a weekend campaign rally. On Sunday, after McCarthy had sketched out a tenuous plan to keep the government open, Trump counseled House Republicans on social media, “IF YOU DON’T GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN.”
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a similarly tight margin when she ran the House , but she operated by very different rules. For one thing, Pelosi never did her laundry in public. If dissent was afoot on a crucial vote, it wouldn’t come to the floor until its passage was secure. Compare that to McCarthy’s group-chat roller coaster last week, getting rolled by Greene on a defense spending bill and leaving Republicans to melt down in public, calling each other traitors and arsonists in comments to the press.
Pelosi also gave more power to her “majority makers,” than Democrats on the far left, knowing her members from swing districts were responsible for their House majority. If she pushed them off a partisan cliff, she knew she’d lose her gavel, too — not by a vote of no confidence, but at the polls the next November.
Since we do want to know what’s coming up next in Congress, take a look at what Greene is saying. Over the weekend she taped a video from her home gym and warned her fellow Republicans where she stands on the future spending fight.
“For those of you in Washington that are so thickheaded that you think we have to vote for these big bills because, ‘Oh, the September 30th deadline is coming!’ I’m going to tell you right now. I don’t give a damn,” she said. In other words, prepare for a government shutdown.
They say a leader needs to be either loved or feared. Pelosi was both, depending on which member you talked to. But McCarthy, for too many of his members, is neither. Did he think they would be loyal to him when he needed their votes the most? Think again. That’s not how it works with the Greene New Deal.
©2023 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visit at ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.