Republicans and conservatives are rightly overjoyed about Nancy Pelosi's forced retirement from the House Speakership, and about their overall victory in this year's House elections – including a six-point shift in the national popular vote from blue to red. These are significant accomplishments that mean, among many other things, that President Biden can no longer count on a compliant Congress to look the other way as he and his henchmen misgovern the country, and he can no longer assume that Congress will spend unlimited amounts of money rewarding key Democratic constituencies, underwriting the profligacy of blue states and localities, and directly enriching the Democratic donor class with federal contracts, grants, subsidies, and tax breaks.
Unfortunately, this may be the limit of what a Republican House can achieve.
First, Republicans have to be mindful of the very narrow majority that they have won in the House. What this means is that even a tiny handful of moderate Republicans, or MAGA firebrands, can derail the ability of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (assuming he wins the Speakership) to produce majorities in favor of bills and resolutions backed by the Republican leadership. If McCarthy tries to push through controversial legislation or Congressional action, like impeachments, attacks on Obamacare, anti-abortion measures, or conditions to U.S. aid to Ukraine, for example, he could easily face rebellions in his caucus that would bring his efforts to naught.
The same problem will limit the ability of House Republicans to use what is now, in theory, their single greatest form of leverage over federal policy: the budget. All money bills must originate in the House, which means that going forward, not a dime of federal money can be spent without the new Republican House's say-so. The truth, however, is that the House can only exercise this power by passing budgets that it finds agreeable, but which a Democratic Senate and a Democratic Administration will not. The result? A stalemate, which in our system yields government shutdowns as funding runs out. Again, theoretically, the Republican House could stick to its guns and force ultimate Democratic acquiescence to a budget of the GOP's choice, but in reality, the White House, Democrats, and the media would blame Republican “obstruction” and heartlessness for denying Americans needed services amid a shutdown. Most shutdowns end in Republican ignominy and Democratic self-congratulation because the Democrats and their media allies control the framing of the issue on the crucial battlefield of public opinion. Indeed, for this reason, Democrats often court shutdowns, because they know they can weaponize them to their advantage.
The upshot, therefore, of House Republicans' newfound budgetary authority is that they are only likely to use it sparingly and cautiously. Thus, there is unlikely to be any serious reduction in federal spending or its inflationary aftereffects, and House Republicans may even press for additional spending, so that they can at least make the case to their constituents and donors that they, too, now get to partake in federal largesse.
While Republicans will undoubtedly investigate Biden, his family, and his key cabinet officials over the next two years, here too the political effectiveness of such oversight is questionable. Democrats, who until recently argued that refusing to testify before Congress when subpoenaed to do so was the functional equivalent of blowing one's nose on the U.S. Constitution and “destroying democracy”, will quickly pivot to complete dismissal of the authority of the Republican House to question anyone. It is doubtful if many Democrats will appear before House committees, and, if they refuse, it is even more doubtful that Merrick Garland's DOJ will exert itself to punish them for “contempt of Congress”. More importantly, it is certain that the mainstream media will ignore virtually all attempts by the new Republican Congress to shine a light on Bidenist and Democratic corruption and incompetence. On the contrary, the Dems and their media allies will consistently paint the new, Republican-led House of Representatives as mean-spirited, “extreme”, obsessed with trivialities, and even seditious and dangerous. Most consumers of the mainstream media will believe this nonsense as a matter of course.
Perhaps the hardest question that Kevin McCarthy and his top lieutenants will have to ask themselves, as the 118th session of the United States Congress convenes, is: what percentage of their very limited time, effort, and sway over public opinion do they wish to employ berating Joe Biden and the Biden Administration, specifically? Much like the Democrats, who savor the prospect of another Trump run for the presidency, because they view Trump as weak and unappealing, but recoil at the (to them remote) prospect that Trump could actually win and be president again, Republicans need to ponder whether “getting Biden” is realistic, and whether it is worth the potential political cost of dethroning him in favor of a different candidate in 2024 who could be younger, more articulate, and/or more electable. Arguably, the smartest move for Congressional Republicans might be to criticize Democratic policies harshly but to pave the way for Joe Biden himself to remain as the Democrats' standard-bearer in 2024. That would require a great deal of finesse and self-control on the part of Congressional Republicans, however, and that may be asking too much.
Then again, Republicans might decide to employ some “reverse psychology” on the Democrats. They might impeach Joe Biden, early and often, on the assumption that the Dems will rally around him and stick with him in 2024. All things are possible!
As is so often the case in politics, the key lesson of the 2022 election may be this: be careful what you wish for. Republicans hoped to win control of the House, and they did, but so narrowly and in such an adverse media and cultural environment that their newfound “power” may be more illusory than real.
In any event, Republicans should accept that the new House of Representatives will accomplish relatively little, in terms of both policies and in the sense of altering public opinion. What the House should avoid doing, above all, is anything that will hurt Republicans' chances in 2024, when the GOP has a golden opportunity to keep the House and take back the Senate and the presidency. With such a broad-based victory secured, Kevin McCarthy and his caucus really could change America, and the world, for the better.
Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History at SUNY Alfred and blogs at: www.waddyisright.com. He appears on the Newsmaker Show on WLEA 1480/106.9.