Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made history the other day. He was the first sitting Speaker of the House to be fired. Talk about being hoisted on your own petard. One congressman was heard to say after the vote that the former speaker's "chickens finally came back to roost." More on that in a moment.
The change in leadership is going to have an impact on climate and clean energy programs and policy. Some of the impacts will be specific, e.g., attempting to amend the Inflation Reduction Act and streamlining the environmental regulatory process. Other consequences will be a function of personalities and personal politics.
But first, a bit of context. The vote to vacate was 216 to 210 to oust the speaker. The Democrats all turned their thumbs down on McCarthy, but it was the eight Republicans who voted with them that caused his demise and all the chaos that's now going on in the House. Representative Westerman (R-AR) pretty well-summed things up now that the House is headless.
"It's all up in the air right now, there's no certainty about anything."
The author of the ouster was Matt Gaetz (R-FL). Gaetz and McCarthy don't like each other—by a lot. Both claim loyalty and friendship to Trump. It's telling, however, that the former president hasn't been especially vocal about the palace intrigue on the Hill. In terms of a "to the core" Trumpian, Gaetz wins. I think it's borne out in the ex-president's silence.
I don't pretend to be a psychiatrist, but my guess is that Trump sees McCarthy as weak and has for a long time. Neither was Trump particularly happy about keeping the government open. It was believed the former president thought the criminal trials couldn't go on if the Department of Justice had no money. It was an erroneous assumption. Trump wasn't the only one unhappy about McCarthy's willingness to compromise and work across the aisle.
McCarthy really did do himself in. He's a guy who openly coveted becoming Speaker. It's the pinnacle of power in the House of Representatives. But, as the Californian discovered, it all depends on your ability to control your members. He couldn't—at least not all of them. Under any circumstance, McCarthy wasn’t nearly as practiced at it as former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Speaking of the former Speaker, Pelosi was evicted from her Capitol Hill office, which is generally assigned to a former Speaker of the House. The notice read “Please vacate the space tomorrow.” A bit childish, I’d say. Although not more so than other things that have been happening in the House in recent days and weeks. Pelosi wasn’t in Washington for the vote. She was at the funeral of Senator Feinstein who died on September 29th. Governor Newsome picked Laphonza Butler to serve out the remainder of Feinstein’s term which ends in 2024.
McCarthy coveted the Speaker's gavel so much that he was willing to make deals with Gaetz and the seven or eight most ardent populist Republicans in Congress that had consequences. He agreed to change the rule for a motion to vacate from needing five sponsors to only one. As it turned out, the one was Matt Gaetz. Going from one to five co-sponsors doesn't seem a big deal, but it was. There's a lot of risk in trying to ouster the Speaker of the House and members think twice about adding their name to an attempted coup.
Other concessions were made about how appropriations would be dealt with, giving Gaetz, Jim Jordan (R-OH), and other ultras a kind of exalted position on key committees. Remember, we're only talking about a few dozen representatives out of 221 members. (The group doesn't post its membership, so it's an estimate.) As has been described before, it’s the tail wagging the dog. It’s not natural and never ends well.
The former speaker also made promises about the appropriations process that put a great deal of power in the hands of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC). The Caucus was instrumental in chasing both John Boehner (R-OH) and Paul Ryan (R-WI) out of the speakership and out of Congress. Both were frustrated because the hard-liners of the Caucus made it nearly impossible to get anything done. Where have we heard that before?
I'd wondered before why McCarthy thought he could herd those cats. McCarthy has a history with the HFC and the speaker's position, and it's not very good. He had hoped to be Boehner's successor but was called "not conservative enough" by the Caucus. It became Ryan's turn in the hot seat. McCarthy isn’t so much a conservative as he is a chameleon. He was whatever the person he was talking to wanted him to be—at least until the end of the day.
The chickens and petards mentioned earlier refer to the fact McCarthy rarely said "no" to anyone. And often, he couldn't keep his promise or didn't follow through. The Democrats voted to oust him because of promises made and promises broken. He made a deal with the president in his negotiations over the debt ceiling and appropriations that Gaetz and the Caucus cut refused to live by. The Ds weren’t overly thrilled with McCarthy’s enabling a Biden impeachment investigation. At the first oversight hearing the witnesses basically said there’s nothing to suggest that Biden profited at all from his son’s dealings. They’ll keep looking though.
McCarthy always seemed to give in to the pressure from the ultras. Something that neither the Democrats nor many Republicans were overly pleased about. Then he would realize he couldn’t get anything done by giving in to them, and then he’d begin to compromise. Nancy Mace (R-SC) was the surprise "yes" vote. She later claimed that her vote to oust was based on McCarthy's not keeping his promises to support her women's health initiatives.
Five candidates for speaker are being bandied about at the moment: Steve Scalise (R-LA), who is currently House Majority Leader; Tom Emmer (R-MN), who is the Majority Whip; Jim Jordan (R-OH), who chairs the Judiciary Committee; and Patrick McHenry (R-NC) who is the acting Speaker. Also being talked about is Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who is chair of the House Republican Conference. Scalise and Jordon have formally announced their candidacy. Jordan is Gaetz’s kinda guy.
Gaetz wasn’t well-liked before and his engineering McCarthy’s ouster hasn’t made him any more popular. There’s an ongoing ethics inquiry into Gaetz’s possible extra-curricular activities having to do with underage women. Some have even called for his ouster from the Conference, which won’t happen.
There seems to be no clear front-runner at the moment. Given the contentiousness of the House Republicans, replacing McCarthy could take a while. In the meantime, the House can't get anything done. Congress can’t get anything done. The acting speaker has only one job—overseeing the election of the next Speaker.
McHenry's first official act was to send everyone home for a week to think about what they’d done. When they come back, they'll not only have to elect a new speaker, but they also have to deal with funding the government again. The current continuing resolution keeping the doors open expires on November 17th. Gaetz and friends were more than willing to close the government down when McCarthy was committed to keeping it open. Come the 17th, there may be a repeat of the brinksmanship that was in evidence in September. Without McCarthy, there may be no one willing to compromise.
The Republicans have energy and environmental plans that, unsurprisingly, won't be heralded as good news or policy by the climate and clean energy communities. The House passed H.R. 1, the Lower Energy Costs Act, early in the term. It's heavy on fossil fuels and tries to limit the use of clean energy alternatives. It also makes it easier to extract fossil fuels from federal lands, promoting the use of natural gas and pipelines, and repealing things like the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.
There are other Republican initiatives like the Trillion Trees Act that would tie tree-planting to mass carbon sequestration and the "Save our Sequoias Act," which would allow for targeted changes to environmental protection laws to remove threats to endangered sequoia groves. Either or both could pass before the end of this Congress. Further streamlining of environmental permitting is also currently on the table that could draw bipartisan interest.
Whether any of these things become law is another matter. In part because the Senate would never go along with much of it. It also appears that Republicans will be making electric vehicles a campaign issue. Trump has accused Biden of destroying the American auto industry and the economy with his EV policies. There will be a lot of shoe-pounding in Congress as well I’m sure.
The fight over the supplemental disaster funds is an indicator of how things may proceed in the House in general. McCarthy included $16 billion in the continuing resolution for disaster assistance. The increased frequency and damage caused by climate-related weather events have been straining available funding. The inclusion in the resolution was opposed by the gang of eight.
Andy Biggs (R-AZ) demanded an offset from somewhere else in the discretionary spending programs. I anticipate we'll be hearing a lot more about offsets in the future. It's important to understand that 66 to 70 percent of the federal budget is mandated and includes things like Social Security and Medicare. Leaving the rest to be divided among all the agencies for programs like low-income assistance for food and electricity, research and development, and all the other government does. Do the math.
As reported by Scott Waldman in ClimateWire, "conservative groups have also crafted a plan for demolishing the federal government's efforts to counter climate change — and it wouldn't stop with President Joe Biden's policies." He's referring to the 920-page blueprint called Project 2025, Presidential Transition Project. It's the kind of the slash and burn policies of the Trump administration.
Waldman also reports “The energy and environmental provisions of the plan would block the expansion of the electrical grid for wind and solar energy, slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency's environmental justice office, shutter the Energy Department's renewable energy offices, prevent states from adopting California's car pollution standards; and delegate more regulation of polluting industries to Republican state officials.”
It's very hard to imagine how things will be getting done in Congress—especially the House—between now and at least the end of the year—likely through all of next year. I'll admit to feeling a bit sorry for McCarthy. He's been hung out to dry because he was willing to compromise to keep the country from being rated as a dead-beat debtor and the doors of government open. Compromise to the Gaetz's in Congress is not just a dirty word—it's a filthy one, and it can get you hanged or thrown under a bus.
The big unknown is what the 210 Republicans who supported McCarthy are going to do now. They are weary of the in-fighting and of having to take a back seat to the unruly among them. We’ll just have to wait and see.
The most serious question is: how can anything get done without compromise? Democracy doesn’t work without it, government fails to function, and it’s the people that pay the price.
This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.