Creating Chaos is not an accident but a strategy

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Credit: Ciaran McCrickard Copyright: World Economic Forum / Ciaran McCrickard

The Republicans’ chaotic process for selecting the House Speaker was the first open skirmish in the war to take down the establishment. Kevin McCarthy won the battle, but the fight for power to control the future of the Republican Party, as well as our current form of government, is far from over. 

McCarthy gained only a Pyrrhic victory. On Monday, January 9, the Republican rebels, as the liberal media have described them, secured a new set of rules. Democrat Representative Jamie Raskin says the right-wing created chaos is destroying Lincoln’s party. The rebels are out to overthrow the established leadership of both parties, accusing them of stifling House representatives from passing much-needed legislation.

Two questions need to be asked. First, who is promoting this chaos? And what do they want besides tearing down the House?  

Democrats have described McCarthy’s opponents as the far-right, Jake Tapper of CNN and other liberal media journalists describe them as rebels, and Republicans have labeled them everything from anarchists to freedom fighters. 

When you look closely at the composition of the core 20 Republicans, who fought against McCarthy becoming the House Speaker, they share one measurable status: they are all members of the House Freedom Caucus (FC), which is the reactionary faction of the Republican Party. I previously wrote about how The Far-Right Freedom Caucus will steer Congress’s agenda for the next two years.

The media has ignored that picking the new House Speaker and setting the new House rules has been orchestrated by the Freedom Caucus. Surprisingly, from both the left and right media, there is an absence of articles recognizing the Freedom Caucus’s leadership. The closest a journalist came to identifying them was by the Public Broadcasting System, Who are the House Republicans voting against Kevin McCarthy for speaker? The article identified three “Early Leaders” and three “Trump Allies,” saying most of McCarthy’s no votes were probably from members of the House Freedom Caucus. However, they cautioned that most of that caucus supported McCarthy.

I compared those voting against McCarthy to the list of acknowledged members of the Freedom Caucus. Every one of the 15 incumbents, in the group of 20 opponents to McCarthy, is a caucus member. Five of the fifteen were the most right-wing faction within FC, referring to themselves as the MAGA Squad, who believe that Trump won the election. 

Additionally, the caucus runs the House Freedom Fund, which endorsed and gave donations to all five newly elected House members who were part of the 20 No McCarthy group. Each new member ran and won against establishment Republicans in their primaries. 

Andy Ogles won by claiming that the GOP primary was a battle between the “establishment versus the conservative wing of the party.” Keith Self ousted an incumbent Republican representative who voted to certify the 2020 presidential election and for a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

Those caucus members who eventually switched to support McCarthy did so because he agreed to their new House rules. And those who initially supported McCarthy from the caucus made side deals with McCarthy to obtain positions of power. The prime examples are former Jim Jordan, the founding Chair of FC, who was promised to head the Judiciary Committee, and Marjorie Taylor Green, who was promised a seat on the Rules Committee. They didn’t leave the Freedom Caucus; they became caucus implants on two of the most powerful House Committees. 

Now that the Freedom Caucus has set the new rules for the House, how will the Republicans use them?

The person who knows first-hand is former House Speaker John Boehner, who the Freedom Caucus pushed out in 2015. Boehner gained the speakership and held that position in 2011 thanks to the Tea Party, the forerunner of the Freedom Caucus. However, when the Freedom Caucus was formed from many of its veterans, Tea Party was functionally dead, and by 2018, nearly half had left the House .

As the House Speaker, Boehner described Tea Party members as “great patriots,” “It’s not enough, however, for Republicans to simply voice respect for what the Tea Partiers are doing, (and) praise their efforts,” he said. He added, “Republicans must stand with them.” After being dismissed by the Freedom Caucus, he described them as “anarchists. They want total chaos. Tear it all down and start over.”

His successor, Paul Ryan, served as House Speaker from 2015 to 2019. He was the Freedom Caucus’ compromise candidate but spent four years trying to get legislation passed over their objections. Finally, after he failed to get a Republican bill replacing Obama’s Affordable Care Act due to the caucus’s opposition, realizing that he could no longer be Speaker, he resigned from Congress. 

Kevin McCarthy’s future will replay Boehner and Ryan’s experience. Like them, he has continually adjusted his traditional conservative principles to align with the most far-right Republican base. Most importantly, McCarthy agreed to an arrangement that Boehner and Ryan rejected.  He has apparently agreed to the anti-establishment caucus strategy of blocking legislation and disrupting government protocols that do not conform to their ideology. 

McCarthy shares many of the same values as the Freedom Caucus; however, he comes out of a tradition of respecting institutions that they do not. Chaos was not the unintended fallout of electing McCarthy as Speaker. It was intended to hold McCarthy, hostage until he agreed to accept their agenda and strategies. They released him after he adopted their House rules. 

The Freedom Caucus leaders are not stupid. They are clever. They promoted some rule changes that had been sought for years by many representatives who felt ignored, if not suppressed, by the leadership of both parties. Caucus member Chip Roy said the House floor is nearly empty for most debates, and members haven’t been able to offer amendments there for years.

One progressive improvement was to adhere to the requirement that the Democrats had introduced years ago. It said there had to be 72 hours available for members to read legislation before House members must vote on it. This is a mild change since past critical legislation took about this time.  

Republicans attack Democrats for not giving them enough time to read the 4,000 pages of the Democrat’s recent $1.7-trillion fiscal 2023 omnibus spending package. However, that legislation had a tight deadline to keep the government operating or could not pay its bills. Republicans and Democrats had been negotiating to agree on what would be in the bill since September. 

Republicans have also rushed bills through Congress. In December 2017, the Republican 1,100-page tax-reform measure was distributed on Friday evening to the House, and the vote was the following Tuesday. Passing it was not critical to the government funding itself. 

But the new 72-hour rule comes without any enforcement mechanism. So will the Republicans apply it to all legislation?

Another change was secured by a verbal promise, not a written rule. It would allow amendments to be considered on the floor. This change could be interpreted as a return to the “open rule,” allowing any lawmaker to offer an amendment to be voted upon by the entire chamber. Under Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in the 1990s, more than half the bills reached the House floor through the open rule. It ended in 2016 when Ryan dropped it, trying to hamper right-wing members from sabotaging his legislation. 

When the Democrats won the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not resurrect the open rule, realizing she needed it to maintain discipline within her party. Consequently, no legislation has been introduced on the floor through that rule in the last seven years.

A far more critical change is not in the written rules but by installing a block of Freedom Caucus members on the Rules Committee. From that perch, they should be able to veto any legislation from reaching a vote on the House floor. Generally, no amendments are allowed on most bills once out of committee, and the only amendments that can be put to a vote must be pre-approved by the Rules Committee. In other words, all House legislation brought to a floor vote could be subject to the caucus’s approval or face possible defeat.

Michael Steele, former Republican National Committee chair, described the goals of the Freedom Caucus approach to MSNBC, “It’s not about good govt or draining the swamp, it’s about deconstructing the administrative state.” The liberal NYT reflected that belief in their front-page news analysis, saying, “Their agenda is mostly to defund, disrupt and dismantle government, not to participate in it.”

The Freedom Caucus touts freedom and democracy. Freedom is a marketplace economy free of most government restraints. Democracy is for citizens who abide by the laws framed by dominant Christian cultural values. A liberal state that restricts or punishes investments and tolerates deviant social behavior should be disrupted by a little chaos to dismantle it by shrinking its revenue to the level that it cannot continue those activities. 

The first piece of House Republican legislation that the Freedom Caucus insisted that Speaker McCarthy pass was to deprive revenue to the government by dismantling the IRS. The Democrat-led government hired IRS employees who could check the taxes of the wealthiest top 1 percent of individuals and companies. 

The Treasury Department’s 1921 notice said the “tax gap”—the difference between taxes owed and collected—totals around $600 billion annually and will mean approximately $7 trillion in lost tax revenue over the next decade. Charles Rettig, the Internal Revenue Service commissioner, said, most of the unpaid taxes are the result of evasion by the wealthy and large corporations. 

This gap in collecting taxes would certainly contribute to our federal budget deficit?  Tax revenue is not flowing into public services but accumulating as private wealth. The Center for American Progress reported that the most recent Federal Reserve Board figures on U.S. inequality released this past March put the top 1 percent’s share of American personal wealth at 32 percent, expanding from 23 percent in 1989. 

This type of bill is just the beginning of the waterfall of bills that the right-wing of the Republicans will push in the next two years. If McCarthy attempts to pass bi-partisan legislation without Freedom Caucus approval, he’ll be shown the exit door. That’s because he consented to allow a single member to make a “motion to vacate the chair,” i.e., a vote that could oust him as Speaker.

Consequently, the House’s bills will find a graveyard in the Senate, and the nation will be treated to a Congressional stalemate. The bright side for the Democrats and traditional conservative Republicans is that the Republican reactionary faction will be visibly responsible for getting nothing done. They will also severely damage the Republican Party’s chance for electoral victories in 2024, but those defeats may embolden conservatives to save their party from the sway of this faction. 

The biggest looming legislative battle will be the right-wing Republicans holding their party to a no-compromise position on raising the nation’s statutory debt limit. They are demanding extraordinary budget cuts affecting every program but the military. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen warned on Friday that if the borrowing cap is not raised the nation will likely default by early June.

In response to this challenge and similar ones, Democrats need to do more than stir up anger from their constituency base. Instead, they must reach beyond their core constituencies to expose how the ideologically driven Republican legislation limits social freedoms for all Americans. And on the economic level, how it harms all those on incomes primarily limited to their jobs and not investments. 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

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