[OPINION] House Speaker McCarthy's Big Win on Debt

By Park Sae-jin Posted : July 19, 2023, 16:06 Updated : July 19, 2023, 16:06
Arthur I Cyr
[Arthur I. Cyr]

[This article was contributed by Arthur I. Cyr, author of “After the Cold War -- American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He has taught at the Universities of Chicago and Illinois, Northwestern University and Carthage College (Clausen Distinguished Professor).]

KENOSHA -- The agreement at the end of May by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and President Joe Biden to raise the ceiling on the national debt, then confirmed by Congress, is of continuing significance. The deal is a major victory for Congressional Republicans and for pragmatic good sense. That is no small matter in the highly partisan, often mean-spirited conflicts between Democrats and Republicans today.

This is especially a win for McCarthy, who had suffered what appeared to be severe political damage in winning the speakership. His ordeal involved numerous, largely public compromises with the far-right Republicans in the House. Outsiders especially could rightly view his victory as pyrrhic, leaving him likely to suffer more embarrassment before being ousted.

Now, the largely Republican success in the debt deal is all that more significant, for both the party and the Speaker. Along with the victory for common sense in avoiding an unprecedented U.S. default on debt, McCarthy was able to achieve actual spending reform. Specifically, if the House and Senate have not passed 12 appropriations bills (the old-fashioned approach to spending legislation) by the end of the year, all discretionary spending will become automatically subject to a one percent reduction.

Biden and the overwhelming majority of Democrats in the House and Senate support the aggressive spending at the heart of their party today. Continuing partisan conflict in Congress is frustrating for Democrats who support the extremely expansive domestic spending legislation of President Joe Biden. Note: not all Democrats back the White House's big spending ambitions.

Biden’s very low, sinking poll numbers are a crucial factor. Perceived failure includes the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. His self-righteous self-defense further hurt his standing. That has helped stall his ambitious legislative agendas.

Nonetheless, intense partisanship is nothing new. An instructive example is provided by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). His September 2015 retirement announcement stunned people, including friends and allies. Boehner concluded an especially difficult tour of service in the top leadership post.

Boehner as Speaker was a partisan Republican but also a dedicated legislator. He has rightly taken pride in getting the job done. That meant compromise on occasion with Democrats while working simultaneously to retain fractious House Republicans.

In 2013, Republicans managed to shut down the government as part of the effort to derail the Affordable Care Act. Democrats led by President Barack Obama used this to political advantage. Boehner’s selfless 2015 decision made another shutdown less likely.

Holding federal spending hostage to controversial partisan maneuvers has now gone on for many years. In 1994, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives after forty years in minority status. Their majority was led by the new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who accelerated the shift of that office from relatively nonpartisan to partisan.

Then as now, White House Democrats and Congressional Republicans played an escalating game of budgetary chicken. The federal government was shut down briefly. In the political and public media maneuvering, President Bill Clinton skillfully put the onus on the Republicans.

Sam Rayburn (D-TX) remains the longest-serving Speaker of the House. From the 1940s into the 1960s, he successfully practiced bipartisanship.

Rayburn possessed exceptional political skills. Additionally, in his time Congress included conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, unlike our politics now. Partisan media further raise the political temperature.

McCarthy is now in a good, promising position to use his leverage for productive rather than destructive political outcomes.
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