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Kevin McCarthy may have just won himself the most dysfunctional Congress ever

Exhausted by the last few days of drama on Capitol Hill, which saw Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California trying and failing to win the House speaker’s gavel 14 times before finally eking out a slim majority late Friday night?

You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The unbridled chaos of this week’s speaker debacle simultaneously confirmed and compounded an unsettling truth: The United States could be on the cusp of its most dysfunctional Congress ever.

Lawmakers congratulate Kevin McCarthy after he won the 15th vote in the House Chamber.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy is congratulated after winning the 15th vote in the House Chamber, as the House enters its fifth day trying to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, early on Saturday. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Much of this is McCarthy’s own doing. With a narrowly divided chamber, 222-to-212, the new speaker has shown the far-right wing of his caucus that they can get their way through obstruction — a recipe for nonstop hostage-taking by small factions going forward.

Following closed-door negotiations Thursday night, the Bakersfield congressman told reporters Friday morning that he had finally managed to flip “some” votes, predicting “improvement” in the next round of balloting.

“Watch here, and you’ll see some people who have been voting against me voting for me,” he said as he entered the chamber.

Kevin McCarthy holds Rep. Matt Gaetz by the arm in the House Chamber on Friday night. Gaetz looks cautiously triumphant.
McCarthy speaks to Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in the House chamber on Friday night. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

McCarthy wasn’t wrong. When Round 12 was over and the votes were tallied, his count had increased to 213 — still short of the 218-vote majority required to win, but up substantially from his previous high of 203.

“We’ll come back tonight,” he said Friday afternoon, “to finish this once and for all.”

Ultimately, he did — but only after falling short yet again in Rounds 13 and 14 and forcing a surprise 15th round of voting as Friday evening turned to Saturday morning. In the end, several longtime holdouts voted “present” rather than voting for someone other than McCarthy — and it is likely McCarthy made some final, as yet unspecified, concessions in return.

The problem for Congress, however, is that McCarthy will probably have to continue prostrating himself in order to keep his new job. Why? Because in the process of winning their votes, he awarded his captors nearly every demand on their wishlist — empowering them to continue to obstruct business whenever it suits their purposes.

And so while McCarthy might have won his coveted speakership, Congress itself may prove to be out of control.

Take McCarthy’s highest-profile concession: to allow any one member — down from his previous compromise of five — to force a House-wide no-confidence vote in the speaker at any time (which is known as “a motion to vacate”).

The issue here isn’t lack of precedent. Before former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi weakened the rule to allow only a party leader or a majority vote by one party to force such a vote, any individual member could, in theory, make a motion to vacate. The issue isn’t even that a single member could topple a speaker; it would still take a majority vote of the entire House to actually vacate the seat.

Instead, the real issue is that the current, 10-seat Republican majority is so small — and McCarthy’s speakership victory so slim — that the threat of defection is likely to loom over every bill, giving the same rebels who have paralyzed Congress this week endless opportunities to do the same thing again and again.

And that means leverage.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy emphatically gestures downward, mouth agape, indicating that he has had enough.
McCarthy gestures toward Gaetz (not pictured) in the House Chamber as voting continued for a new speaker at the Capitol on Friday night. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

How will McCarthy’s tormentors — most of whom belong to the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus — use their newfound leverage? Not to keep the federal government, which they claim to loathe, running smoothly.

An early clue about the coming pandemonium emerged after several Republicans flipped to McCarthy on Friday. Inside the Capitol, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a former holdout, told reporters that “one very important thing … that was part of the deal is dealing with raising the national debt limit,” in the words of CNN correspondent Manu Raju.

Three times while Donald Trump was president, Congress raised this limit, a routine formality that allows the federal government to cover expenses it has already authorized in order to avoid a catastrophic default that could wipe out $15 trillion in wealth and cost as many as 6 million jobs, according to one recent estimate.

But now it appears McCarthy has vowed (as CNN put it) “not [to] agree to a clean debt-ceiling increase” unless President Biden agrees to “some conditions” in return — possibly spending cuts to popular domestic programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The result could be a dangerous game of political chicken — with global markets hanging in the balance.

A marquee federal-debt-ceiling showdown might be the most explosive confrontation of 2023. But any spending bill could also now become a platform for hard-right brinkmanship under a return to so-called open rules, another one of McCarthy’s reported concessions to conservatives, who say they’re frustrated by large catchall measures, such as Congress’s recent $1.7 trillion omnibus package. This move would allow any member to force votes on an unlimited number of amendments designed to eviscerate or derail the legislation altogether.

Factor in McCarthy’s other reported giveaways — four seats for the Freedom Caucus on the powerful House Rules Committee, which controls what legislation reaches the floor and in what form; a roughly $75 billion cut in defense spending; plus promised floor votes on term limits, a balanced budget amendment and a harsh border security package — and it isn’t hard to imagine the House struggling to perform even its most basic duties in the months ahead.

Not helping matters will be a group of newly emboldened right-wing rabble-rousers who have every incentive to keep obstructing — coupled with a speaker who “has to wake up every day wondering if he’s still going to have his job,” as Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, recently told the New York Times.

“He’s going to be the weakest speaker,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said of McCarthy. “The problem is that he’s also weakened the institution in general."