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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The wrecking-ball caucus: How the far-right brought Washington to its knees

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol building as budget negotiations are ongoing, and a government shutdown looms at the Capitol, in Washington, Sept. 22, 2023.

By Carl Hulse

When it comes to his view of the U.S. government, Rep. Bob Good, a right-wing Republican who represents a Virginia district that was once the domain of Thomas Jefferson, doesn’t mince words.

“Most of what Congress does is not good for the American people,” Good declared in an interview off the House floor as the chamber descended into chaos last week. “Most of what we do as a Congress is totally unjustified.”

Although his harsh assessment is a minority opinion even among his Republican colleagues, it encapsulates the perspective that is animating the hard right on Capitol Hill and, increasingly, defining a historically dysfunctional moment in U.S. politics.

With a disruptive government shutdown just days away, Washington is in the grip of an ultraconservative minority that sees the federal government as a threat to the republic, a dangerous monolith to be broken apart with little regard for the consequences. They have styled themselves as a wrecking crew aimed at the nation’s institutions on a variety of fronts.

They are eager to impeach the president and even oust their own speaker if he doesn’t accede to their every demand. They have refused to allow their own party to debate a Pentagon spending bill or approve routine military promotions — a striking posture, given that unflinching support for the armed forces has long been a bedrock of Republican orthodoxy.

Defying the GOP’s long-standing reputation as the party of law and order, they have pledged to handcuff the FBI and throttle the Justice Department. Members of the party of Ronald Reagan refused to meet with a wartime ally, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, this past week when he visited the Capitol and want to eliminate assistance to his country, a democratic nation under siege from an autocratic aggressor.

And they are unbowed by guardrails that in past decades forced consensus even in the most extreme of conflicts; this is the same bloc that balked at raising the debt ceiling in the spring to avert a federal debt default.

“There is a group of Republican members who seem to feel there is no limit at all as to how you can wreck the system,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “There are no boundaries, no forbidden zones. They go where relatively junior members have feared to tread in the past.”

The faction, personified most vividly by 20 or so emboldened conservatives in the House, has been able to venture there in large part because of the evenly divided Congress, where each party holds a slim majority in one chamber, giving outsize influence to any bloc — in this case, the most extreme on the right.

That group has seized the initiative in the House by being willing to take on Speaker Kevin McCarthy and employ procedural tactics that would have cost them dearly in the past.

Members of the far-right Freedom Caucus and other right-wing House members see themselves as courageously doing the people’s work. They believe they are reining in government and taking on what they call a corrupt “uniparty” of Republicans and Democrats who conspire with rich donors and special interests to bankrupt the nation and beat down the average American.

Democrats consider them dangerous, out-of-control radicals, and even some of their Republican colleagues regard them as misguided outliers determined to impose their views on their party and the nation. But neither has found a way to overcome their guerrilla tactics, which include jettisoning decades of tradition and openly defying their own party on the House floor.

“The problem is, we are being dragged around by 20 people when 200 of us are in agreement,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. “As long as we let those 20 drag us around, we are going to get these kinds of results. At some point in time, you’ve got to say, ‘We’re done.’”

The group of far-right members roiling the House varies from vote to vote and issue to issue but typically includes a mix of members of the Freedom Caucus and the 20 Republicans who opposed McCarthy for speaker and demanded concessions for their eventual support. They include Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida; Ralph Norman of South Carolina; Good; Matt Rosendale of Montana; Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia; Dan Bishop of North Carolina; Lauren Boebert of Colorado; and Andy Biggs and Eli Crane, both of Arizona, among others.

Even McCarthy, after two humiliating defeats on the floor last week as he failed to extricate himself and the House from a deepening quagmire over funding the government, finally acknowledged that what he was dealing with represented a significant deviation from long-standing norms.

“This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down,” McCarthy said.

But the phenomenon is hardly new. The right-wing rebels have styled themselves in the mold of former President Donald Trump, who made norm-shattering behavior a virtue among the Republican base and an asset for many lawmakers, who now fear primary elections much more than general ones. The shift in the party has driven off many more mainstream Republican lawmakers capable of cutting the kinds of compromises Congress relies upon to achieve success.

Last week, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, became the latest to decide that he no longer has a place on Capitol Hill, announcing his retirement from the Senate with a blast of unflattering truth-telling about what has become of his party.

“We have seen for the past decade this kind of rump faction of far-right Republicans who obviously don’t believe in government,” said Matt Dallek, a professor of political management and historian at George Washington University. He called their rise in the House “the fairly logical culmination of an increasingly radical and increasingly extremist Republican Party.”

The push against federal law enforcement — numerous House Republicans want to restrict federal inquiries into Trump and roll back the powers of the FBI — along with a growing isolationism and a view of the Pentagon as part of the “woke deep state” has alarmed some Republican hawks.

Both parties in Congress have always had their share of rabble rousers; both of McCarthy’s predecessors, Speakers Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and John Boehner of Ohio, had to contend with a robust contingent of right-wing rebels. But in the past, party leaders have often been able to sideline them, allowing the rabble rousers to make noise but not as much trouble.

But with McCarthy facing both a slim majority and the constant threat of an ouster, the far-right bloc has driven events.

“They are not just throwing up the bombs; they are blowing up the party,” said Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “It is not really clear how to appease them or secure their votes.”

The situation now has the nation staring at a government shutdown that seems almost inevitable without a move by McCarthy to join with Democrats in approving an interim spending bill to keep the federal funding flowing after next Saturday. But a decision to do so would be all but certain to spark a challenge to his leadership from the very people who have forced the country to the brink.

“The clowns are running the circus here,” said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee. “There are a lot of Republicans who are rational human beings who are horrified by this but don’t seem to have the guts to stand up to it and push back.

“I’m starting to feel nostalgic for Gingrich,” he added, referring to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who engineered Republicans’ takeover of the House in 1994 after 40 years in the minority and was reviled by Democrats. Gingrich also presided over a shutdown and an impeachment, and Republicans paid a price in the polls and at the ballot box.

These days, those at the center of the House chaos say they don’t fear a political backlash because they are doing what their constituents want.

“People back home are telling me we can’t do this anymore,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., who has pledged to oppose any attempt to temporarily fund the government after Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends. “We have to quit with the spending. It’s Black folks. It’s white folks. It’s rich and poor alike. They say it in a different way, but it is the same thing, that the government has way outkicked its coverage.”

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