Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had assembled a photo line Thursday morning just off the House floor for anyone who wanted a picture with the ex-speaker before he cast his last votes.
But after a few minutes, one of the House’s far-right conservatives forced a vote on a procedural motion designed to try to block a defense policy bill. The ex-speaker had to rush on to the floor to help tamp down another mini-rebellion.
It was a fitting end to McCarthy’s career, a 17-year arc that traced House Republicans’ path in helping the GOP move away from its conservative policy roots to instead focus on political stunts.
Rather than trying to work on policy through congressional committees and winning political support, they would find some looming fiscal deadline and threaten calamity unless their conservative demands were met.
For 13 years, the House GOP has cycled between a far-right group of about 15 to 30 conservatives first holding things hostage, and then the leadership team getting ahead of the next hostage-taking by declaring that that was the preferred strategy.
They held the Treasury’s borrowing limit hostage in 2011, threatening default and causing the lowering of the federal government’s credit rating. They held the nation’s tax system hostage in 2012 and nearly forced a massive tax hike on nearly every worker. They held the federal workforce hostage and shut down the government (in 2013 and late 2018/early 2019).
They started this year off by holding McCarthy himself hostage, refusing to give him enough votes to become speaker until he made so many concessions that he lacked the power of previous speakers. They, again, held Treasury’s debt limit hostage in the spring and helped cause another credit downgrade.
In October, after voting to expel McCarthy as speaker, House Republicans did something even more jaw-dropping: They held themselves hostage for three weeks, unable to elect a successor and leaving the House unable to function.
And now, as McCarthy heads for the exit, House Republicans are the driving force in another legislative hostage-taking. This time, following the lead of Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), the House GOP is holding hostage a $110 billion national security package to help defend Israel and Ukraine, fearing support for Ukraine would draw the ire of their leading political figure, ex-president Donald Trump, and many of his supporters.
In terms of his legacy — tangible policy achievements — McCarthy has little to show. By some measures, this has been the least productive Congress since the Hoover administration.
McCarthy talks about his fateful decision Sept. 30 to pass a simple resolution funding the government for 47 days, without any political ransom for conservatives, as if he passed Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts.
He knew ahead of time, as he recounted during Thursday’s farewell address, that relying on Democratic support to keep the government open would prompt far-right lawmakers to call the vote to expel him and that they would be likely to succeed.
“Do it anyway,” McCarthy said in his speech, growing defiant. “I would do it all again.”
All he did was pass a “continuing resolution” to fund government for a little more than six weeks, a legal maneuver Congress had previously done 200 times since 1977.
It is shocking, in retrospect, to hear McCarthy talk about that simple move as his own political raison d’être — and it is baffling to think such a standard-operating-procedure move led to his downfall.
During his first job in House Republican leadership in 2011, then-majority whip McCarthy played the affable understudy to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) and then-Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who chaired the Budget Committee.
Those leaders came up with the first hostage strategy, prompting a spring and summer negotiation over the nation’s debt limit that ended with $2 trillion of cuts and savings — a policy win for Republicans. Still, a third of the most conservative lawmakers voted against it.
By the fall of 2013, the most conservative antagonists essentially took charge of the Republican conference and forced Boehner’s leadership team into a government shutdown over their attempt to defund the implementation of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
It ended terribly, with no concessions, and almost two-thirds of Republicans voted against the leadership team’s bill to reopen government.
From then on — whether it was Speaker Boehner, Speaker Ryan or, eventually, Speaker McCarthy — the tail of the House GOP regularly wagged the dogs of leadership.
Of the self-branded “Young Guns,” Cantor and Ryan fashioned themselves as the policy experts while McCarthy focused on politics, recruiting candidates and raising money. He never served anywhere near the top of a legislative committee and, to this day, is not associated with a single area of policy expertise.
McCarthy always seemed a good fit to be the guy behind “The Guy,” a tactical strategist not meant to be fully in charge. But once Boehner, Cantor and Ryan departed the scene — all driven into early retirement by far-right forces — McCarthy became House minority leader in January 2019.
His greatest political feat probably came in 2020, when Biden won the popular vote by more than 7 million but McCarthy’s diverse crop of candidates produced a historic gain of more than 10 seats for House Republicans.
Friends and foes cite McCarthy’s political work, not legislative wins, when they discuss his accomplishments.
“Kevin McCarthy had an unequaled impact on this institution. I mean, look at how he rose to leadership so quickly once he got in here, because of his ability to build relationships, his leadership skills,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), the chair of House Republicans’ campaign arm.
“Look, I think he helped bring us back into the majority, actually, twice. So I thank him for that. That’s it,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
The 2022 midterms, which handed the GOP the majority, actually served as a disappointment. McCarthy’s side gained just nine seats, bringing such a narrow majority that it emboldened the most conservative wing of his conference to wreak havoc.
In one of many examples, the House Armed Services Committee negotiated a popular Pentagon policy bill and passed it 58-1 in their panel, but then the hard-liners went to McCarthy and forced a broad rewriting of the bill that loaded it up with conservative culture-war riders. It barely passed, and the House eventually gave in to much of the bipartisan bill drafted in the Senate, which eventually passed the House on Thursday.
McCarthy’s biggest legislative play came in debt limit negotiation in the spring as he deputized a couple of his closest friends to negotiate with top Biden advisers.
Since 1960, Congress had increased the borrowing limit more than 65 times, and this time, McCarthy’s allies did get some conservative wins: limits on federal agency spending for the next two years, expanded work requirements for some entitlement programs and reduced funding for the IRS.
But, in a near mirror image of the vote on the 2011 debt limit deal, a third of House Republicans opposed this year’s bill — some vehemently enough that they voted against a procedural move needed to start debate, leading McCarthy to rely on Democrats to advance the bill in a very rare manner.
Those far-right Republicans then shut the House down for more than a week in June, vowing to block legislation from advancing on the House floor. And they blocked many of the government funding bills coming out of the Appropriations Committee.
And a few threatened to force the motion to vacate the speakership, so McCarthy kept making concessions.
It’s almost been forgotten by history as so much happened in the past three months, but McCarthy’s original plan was to shut the government down.
By late September, McCarthy decided to attach a very conservative border security bill — that had no chance of passing the Senate — to the government funding legislation.
The border crisis had grown so dire, with Republicans holding the upper hand on public opinion, McCarthy’s allies declared that the shutdown would be worth it.
“This is something I would shut down the government over,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) told reporters in late September.
But 21 Republicans wouldn’t vote even for six weeks of government funding in exchange for a potential border win, tanking the legislation in the House on Sept. 29.
The next morning, with just hours to spare to avoid a shutdown and no negotiating leverage, McCarthy folded his cards. He put the “clean CR” on the House floor, and it drew 209 Democratic votes and just 126 Republican votes.
As The Washington Post reported later, McCarthy thought his seven years of publicly bowing to Trump would have resulted in the former president’s calling the group of GOP rebels and telling them to stand down when days later they moved to remove McCarthy as speaker. Trump didn’t and, instead, in a phone call questioned McCarthy’s loyalty. The ex-speaker later told people he then cursed at the ex-president.
The eventual election of Johnson — a much more conservative speaker than his three GOP predecessors — has helped the legislative morass only on the margins.
The appropriations funding bills ran into the same dead end. Far-right Republicans sometimes block the procedural rules votes. And, just a few weeks into the job, Johnson had to pass another “clean CR,” just as McCarthy did, to keep agencies running deep into the winter.
Those Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy aren’t happy with Johnson, yet they have set the expectations bar quite low.
“Well, he didn’t lie to me,” Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) told reporters outside the Capitol Thursday.
The House closed later that afternoon for the holiday season and will not return until Jan. 9 — 10 days before the first of two funding deadlines. The federal workforce will again be held hostage.
But Kevin McCarthy won’t be in the middle of it. As he finished up his speech Thursday, McCarthy again returned to his Sept. 30 decision — to approve the 201st “CR” since 1977 — and encouraged others to follow his lead.
What happens if a vote is the right thing but might cost your job?
“Do it anyway,” McCarthy said. “Because it’s the right thing to do.”