Kevin McCarthy’s Permanent Crisis

kevin mccarthy
This morning, the Republican conference voted on rules changes that their leader, Kevin McCarthy, agreed to in his pyrrhic quest to become Speaker of the House. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
January 10, 2023

Want to know how Washington really works? On Sunday morning, Rep. Jim Jordan, a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, fresh off last week’s Speakership debacle, went on one of the Sunday morning shows and said that it wasn’t just Ukraine spending that he and his comrades had their eyes on. It was all defense spending. “We got a $32 trillion debt,” he said. “Everything has to be on the table.” 

He went on to explain what he meant, which didn’t really reassure anybody. “The ratio of general officers to enlisted individuals now is so out of whack from where it used to be in our military,” Jordan said. “Maybe if would focus on that, helping the troops who do so much the work out there for our great country, and maybe focus on getting rid of all the woke policies in our military, we would have the money we need to make sure our troops get the pay raise they deserve, we’d have the weapon systems and the training that needs to be done so we are ready to deal with our adversaries on the planet. That is what we want to focus on.”

By Monday morning, the Wall Street Journal had a panicky editorial on the matter, and #ThisTown was off to the races. The U.S. defense budget now stands at $1.01 trillion—yes, with a t—which is nearly 13 percent of the entire U.S. federal budget. If that was now truly on the chopping block, as one of the rebel leaders claimed it was, what in the hell did that mean? (One Democratic national security insider vented, “They are saying fewer generals and more troops, less woke indoctrination—what the fuck are you even talking about?!”) Also, would they really do it? Could they really do it? And if so, how? And, given the state of the world, was now really a good time to pick that fight?

At the Pentagon, where the leadership had been preparing for hearings on the withdrawal from Afghanistan and oversight on aid to Ukraine, suddenly people started wondering if they should also prepare to explain how much D.E.I. training cost in comparison to a Bradley. At State, there was some wishful thinking that maybe defense spending—which has, under Republicans, traditionally come at the expense of the State Department— might finally come in for some scrutiny. (There is a lot in the Pentagon’s budget, for instance, that are pork projects that the D.O.D. neither wants nor needs—but some Senator or Congressman does.) At the White House, folks pretended to be calm, pointing to the fact that the only person second to Nancy Pelosi on supporting Ukraine aid and American geopolitical musculature is Mitch McConnell. And on the Hill, well, nobody seemed to have a clue. “Everybody’s just reading the press trying to find out what the other side is thinking,” one Democratic Hill staffer told me. “Nobody knows what this means, everyone’s just guessing at this point.”

Chaos Agents

It was only this morning that the Republican conference voted on the rules changes that their leader, Kevin McCarthy, agreed to in his pyrrhic quest to become Speaker of the House. It was also the moment when a lot of them began discovering what was actually in those changes, but there’s still a lot of guessing about how all that will either aid or block the House Freedom Caucus’s desire to cut government spending. For example, McCarthy agreed on a rule that would bring each of the 12 appropriations bills up for a vote, rather than being bundled together in an omnibus bill. He also agreed to a budget resolution that balances within 10 years. That is not possible without massive cuts to discretionary spending, and guess where the largest chunk of discretionary spending goes? That’s right, defense. 

“Traditionally, Republicans have been the ones who have been willing to spend on defense, that’s been their sacred calf,” said a former State Department official. “But Trump populists don’t care as much about it at all. They’re chaos agents with an isolationist streak.” (Ambassador Daniel Fried, a career foreign service officer who is a Reaganite hawk closely associated with the George W. Bush administration, put it to me this way: “Why are the Republicans suddenly soft on national defense? Because they see us as defending ideological bullshit like democracy.”)

But Republicans, of course, don’t see it that way, especially when it comes to all the supplemental funding that was allocated to pay for weapons and aid for Ukraine. “There’s increasing skepticism that the money we’re sending is being well-used,” one Republican on the Hill told me. “I think there’s a sincere desire to rein in spending and to take away from the trillions in spending that we got to in Covid times and return to something more sustainable. And the defense budget is part of that.” (Even one Democrat with close ties to the Biden administration told me that the covid relief bills had completely shifted the Overton window on spending bills by making people far more nonchalant about massive government packages.)

But when you ask people on the Hill about defense spending cuts, their answers always butt up against the technical: how? How will the cuts structured? What are the actual mechanisms for slashing all that spending Republicans are upset about? There have been a lot of Democratic P.T.S.D. flashbacks to the days of sequestration, the automatic spending cut that we got in 2013 as a result of the debt ceiling stand-off of 2011. But the Hill Republican, who works on budget matters, told me that it’s silly to fear sequestration. Sequestration, they implied, is as 2011 as intense black eyeliner. “By now, we’ve seen so many of those cuts rolled back,” the Republican told me. “They’ll probably look for something else.” 

Like what? Some people on the Hill said they think we’re “guaranteed to have a shutdown.” Others are worried about a debt ceiling debate—but one that ends with the ceiling collapsing this time. Still another insider told me they’re preparing for the U.S. government running on continuing resolutions—for two years. 

Continuing resolutions—and here’s where stuff gets really weedy—aren’t real budgets, they just continue government spending as is, freezing current levels in place. Whatever you think of wasteful Pentagon spending and $640-dollar toilet seats, funding it via continuing resolutions (or C.R.’s, in Washington-speak) would do nothing to cut that fat, but it would do a lot to hobble the United States at a time of great geopolitical turmoil. “Think of the defense budget in thirds,” said Andrew Exum, a deputy assistant secretary of defense under Barack Obama. “One-third is personnel. That’s healthcare, salaries, benefits, that type of thing. One-third is training. And one-third is acquisitions. If you do C.R.s, you can keep the lights on, you can keep soldiers paid, it makes training tougher but you could still do it. But it makes long-term acquisitions”—like of new weapons systems—“really hard.” 

That’s because a C.R. really is a freeze, not just in how much money is spent but how it’s spent. “A C.R. doesn’t account for inflation and it doesn’t account for changes of where we want the money to go,” said a Democratic Senate staffer who works on national security issues. “You cannot change allocations within the C.R. That means no new starts, no new R&D. If you think across the board at the Pentagon, which is the biggest bureaucracy in the world, that’s a significant handcuff. Also, a lot of their efforts are sequential in nature. You can’t do that if you just have a C.R. It doesn’t allow for that one-two sequencing flexibility. And all of that handcuffing doesn’t allow the Pentagon to respond to contingencies and emergencies in national security.” 

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who sits on the Senate Armed Service Committee and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has been spitting mad about this issue in particular. “Last year, we faced a looming threat of a potential year-long continuing resolution when G.O.P. obstruction caused a stalemate during government funding negotiations,” she told me in an email. “A year-long continuing resolution would have been disastrous for our economy and country, and maintained funding levels without any account for inflation or changes in our national security environment. The current extreme partisan rancor from some House Republicans is foreshadowing that same obstruction.”

Moreover, say national security insiders, there was a time to talk about cutting wasteful defense spending (and maybe moving that money toward diplomacy), but that time passed a few years ago. Given the alarming state of the world, looking to cut defense spending as our adversaries—to put it mildly—are ramping up theirs, seems like the height of foolishness.  “Eventually, all of this has an impact on readiness,” said the former State official. “We’re nowhere where we need to be on keeping up with China. The Navy is a particularly glaring weak spot. China is producing ships super fast, while we’re decommissioning ships before the end of their service life. Meanwhile, the conflict in Ukraine exposed that our defense industrial base is not anywhere near where it needs to be. We’re okay in peacetime, but in any real conflict, because this stuff is so high tech, we’re not able to get production lines going fast enough.” 

The argument that our debt is out of control and that there’s no time like the present, says the former diplomat, rings hollow now. “That’s not going to be a very persuasive argument to anyone when you have Xi elected leader for life and making threatening noises about retaliating against our allies for demanding Covid tests and a ground war in Europe,” said the diplomat. “Three years ago, that argument held a lot more water.”

Blood and Water

But here’s the rub. Most of this will play out, just like the Speaker’s battle, inside the Republican conference. It will pit traditional Republican hawks against MAGA Republicans who think, as the Hill Republican told me, that “support to non-Americans, the people who don’t have a little American flag next to their name, is a waste of tax-payer dollars,” and it will all be adjudicated by a Speaker who believes in nothing but burnishing his own resumé. Consider this: there’s a number being bandied about in Washington these days, $75 billion. That’s the number that McCarthy has promised to slash off the Pentagon budget this year because that’s the number by which the Pentagon budget increased last year. But guess what? The reason it increased by that much in 2022 was because of a concession Democrats made to Republicans, who wanted more defense spending, not less. As they say about our lovely Mid-Atlantic, if you don’t like the weather, wait half an hour. 

All this is scrambling traditional alliances on the Hill, potentially throwing the MAGA Republicans in with the House progressives, who have also wanted to cut defense spending—in order to spend that money on things like universal pre-K. But blood runs thicker than water and Hill insiders are warning not to get too optimistic about a left-right coalition slashing defense spending. If you thought the Democrats eating popcorn was a bit much last week, well, get out the butter. “I can tell you what’s not going to happen, which is that the House Freedom Caucus and a minority of Dems team up, because Kevin McCarthy will never let it get to the floor,” said the Democratic Hill staffer. “Because it’s not what his conference wants. This isn’t European coalition politics. The minority doesn’t give the majority a lifeline to save them from their own minority. The Dems aren’t going to save Kevin McCarthy’s ass. It’s their responsibility to figure this out.”