Photo: Kevin McCarthy speaking in December, 2021. Public domain
The House of Representatives remains deadlocked, with a handful of extreme right-wing politicians refusing to back their fellow Republican Kevin McCarthy to be the body’s Speaker. All week, McCarthy has been locked in negotiations with this grouping, but has failed in more than a dozen votes to secure the support of a majority of representatives.
This has been treated with a mix of anger and alarm in the corporate media and among elite political commentators. They point out that without a Speaker of the House — who is responsible for setting up committees and determining what matters come before the whole body — Congress is frozen and cannot take up any new legislation.
While this may be a source of embarrassment for the ruling class, the absence of a functioning Congress is no great tragedy. Has Congress done anything to freeze inflation on essential goods, or punish greedy corporate price gougers? Did Congress do anything when the right to abortion was torn up by the Supreme Court? Is Congress doing anything to fix the water in Jackson, Mississippi, or any of the other cities where infrastructure is collapsing? What about guaranteeing basic social rights like housing, education and health care in the face of massive, spiraling inequality?
Even the partial measures that were actually on the table to be passed by Congress in the last few years failed to make their way to the finish line. This includes the “Build Back Better” social program expansion, the Equality Act to prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination, the PRO Act to vastly expand the right to form a union, proposed police and criminal justice reform measures, and more. The millionaires in Congress are completely disconnected from the hardships poor and working people face on a daily basis. They do not care about this suffering, and they do not do anything about it.
When Congress does act, it usually does so in a way that makes the situation even worse for the people by implementing policies that favor big business and the military-industrial complex. For Wall Street bankers, corporate executives and war profiteers, it may indeed be very disturbing to see their servants in Washington caught up in dysfunction. Every year, Congress hands out enormous sums of money in corporate subsidies, perhaps none bigger than the $858 billion “defense” budget that goes right into the pockets of Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and other firms. This is what Congress is really for.
Besides, if members of Congress somehow decide to finally start doing something positive for a change, it’s not like it would be hard for them to make up for a few missed days, considering how little actual work members of Congress really do. On average, Congress is only in session for a “legislative day” about three days a week. And even on those legislative days politicians are free to simply not show up if they decide there’s somewhere else they’d rather be. Congress is far from an institution where every moment is precious.
Struggle between ruling-class factions
McCarthy is the target of entrenched opposition despite the fact that he himself is a virulent right winger. McCarthy was a key ally of Donald Trump during his time in office, and conspicuously adopted a more pro-Trump orientation than his counterparts in Republican leadership in the Senate. Trump famously referred to McCarthy as “my Kevin” and also has supported his bid throughout the many rounds of voting for Speaker of the House.
McCarthy was first elected to Congress in 2006, and has been a consistent supporter of right-wing, pro-corporate policies. He has been a leading opponent of the Affordable Care Act, helped slash environmental regulations on planet-killing corporations, and just last year voted against marriage equality. Ahead of the midterm election, McCarthy unveiled his “Commitment to America” program detailing what the Republicans would do if they won control of Congress. This includes further militarization of the border, funneling more money into police forces, expanding prisons, rolling back Medicare and further privatizing health care, and further criminalizing health care for women and trans people.
But to the hard core of ultra-right wingers who have blocked him from becoming the Speaker, McCarthy is simply not one of them. The most far right elements of the Republican Party are committed to a program so extremely reactionary and anti-democratic that other factions of the right-wing elite are too fearful of the social upheaval that it could provoke. This fight has also played out over how to orient towards the January 6 attack, the overturn of Roe v. Wade, false claims of election fraud, and more. While McCarthy has opportunistically adopted far right positions at certain points, the holdout members of Congress want a true believer instead — or to simply make an example out of McCarthy to increase their leverage with whoever replaces him.
As has been so frequently noted in the media, this is the longest process to select a Speaker of the House since the 1850s. The fact that once-routine processes have become the subject of intense factional struggle is significant and has ramifications for the working-class struggle. But as much as these elite factions fight with each other, we should not lose sight of the fact that their most important priority will always be fighting the people.