One of my favorite television segments of all time was “Better Know a District” from The Colbert Report. On a regular basis, Stephen Colbert as his faux-conservative persona would focus on one Congressional district, give some fast facts about it, and then talk about and interview the district’s representative. While the segment was comedic, it gave teenage me at least a curiosity about the people who govern. I’d like to think that Colbert meant to foster political interest in the youth through chuckles, as I feel comedy has always worked as a tool for education.
Of course, I can’t use “Better Know a District” as a name for anything, because I feel like Paramount has some kind of eminent domain over that intellectual property. But I have always loved the concept behind the segment, and it has inspired me to write a regular column with a similar vibe. So welcome to “Congress Corner”, where I will explore a Congressional district and the person elected to represent it to the best (or worst) of their ability in the District of Columbia. “Congress Corner” is not as good of a name as “Better Know a District”, but it’s what I’ve got.
To kick off this exploration of the 118th Congress, we’ll turn it over to California’s 20th, a new district redrawn this year. The new area swings quite Republican, including cities such as Bakersfield. The representative of California’s 20th happens to Bakersfield’s own Kevin McCarthy, who has held a seat in Congress since 2007 (through a number of district redrawings) and has dabbled in Washington politics since the late Eighties. Since the beginning of his tenure, McCarthy’s held the roles of House Republican Chief Deputy Whip, House Majority Whip, House Majority Leader, and Leader of the House Republican Conference. But he’s going for a higher calling at the beginning of the next Congress: Speaker of the House.
I can’t say that his colleagues seem too pleased about his ambition.
It’s not that McCarthy is any worse ideologically than your run-of-the-mill Republican. He hates abortion, doesn’t believe in climate change, wants to limit LGBTQ rights, would rather the private section take over many governmental functions, and so on. What makes McCarthy ineffective as a leader or representative is his defection to his base and the more extreme wing of his party. He would rather debase himself in order to get votes than do the right thing, even from a Republican viewpoint. Yes, sacrificing dignity for votes isn’t rare in the political world, but like many hopeful souls in his party before him – Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and so on – McCarthy seems to make his own indignation a sport.
You would assume that such a glutton for punishment would face his constituents from time to time and take his medicine. But McCarthy hasn’t held town halls or meetings in his district for years, preferring to take screened calls instead. Every small man doubles down, it seems. And while I would also loathe having to spend two hours of my life taking on the barrage of complaints from middle-class Inland Empire folks, if I was getting paid a salary to represent those people in Washington, I’d make an attempt to do my job.
The Speaker job is thankless, lost, mostly ceremonial and seen as more of a figurehead by the public despite the role’s procedural responsibilities. Someone who wanted to be taken seriously for the job and restore some kind of gravity to it would come to the table with a roadmap for how they would steer the ship of government away from chaos and toward unity and bipartisanship, regardless of party. But in this land of hopes and dreams, both hopes and dreams seem to replace anything real. Here’s how McCarthy wants to kick off the 118th Congress:
I hope McCarthy knows that the House hasn’t read the Constitution from the floor for years because a) the whole text is available online for the public to access, b) no one will watch or care unless they love C-SPAN (and even then, it’s a skip for me), and c) the entire body of Congress would much rather start a new session of Congress dealing with actual legislation rather than grandstand. Then again, most members of Congress love to grandstand. But they would rather not do it, I assume, reading Article I, Section 2, considering it still lists the amount of representatives each of the original thirteen states were allowed back in 1789.
But despite McCarthy’s rank-and-file Republican values or his hokey cheerleading for America, let’s not forget his siding with insurrectionists and planning to gut the Democrats out of political spite. McCarthy would rather wield power for the sake of his party than he would for the nation’s best interests. After all, we’re dealing with a former Young Republicans leader. We’re dealing with a guy who staffed Bill Thomas, one of the meanest GOP members of Congress, who lambasted McCarthy when he voted to decertify the 2020 election. I’m sure you can imagine giving almost two decades of your life to a guy and then making a decision so bad after his retirement that he publicly roasts you.
Not to mention that McCarthy has tried his hand at becoming Speaker before, but dropped his 2015 bid after revealing that the Benghazi investigations were a Republican plot to bring down Hillary Clinton and not a true probe into any misdeeds by the former Secretary of State. While I commend the guy for telling the truth, I can’t commend him for the truth he told, and I don’t know if anyone else in Congress will, either. Democrats won’t vote for him out of principle, and Republicans won’t forget McCarthy leaving them in the lurch time and time again. In trying to take a moderate stance while at the same time pandering to his friends further to the right, McCarthy has doomed his hopes for a high-ranking position in the presidential line of succession.
I think this Congress will have a hard time filling the Speaker role. McCarthy seems like the most likely fit for the job as far as Republican candidates go. Maybe one of the New Democrats or Blue Dogs could swoop in, capture the Democratic minority and a handful of Republican votes, and steal the Speaker position away from the GOP. But that seems like a long shot. If McCarthy becomes Speaker of the House, he won’t be like Nancy Pelosi, who was mostly liked by her Democratic colleagues and vilified by the Republicans. He’ll receive loathing from the Dems and disdain from his friends in the GOP. While the Speaker role isn’t one that depends on popularity, it’s always nice to have friends. McCarthy seems to have few.
And it seems like even Republican voters don’t care much for McCarthy. In an Economist/YouGov poll of 1,500 American adult citizens from November 19-22, only 15% of Republicans polled said they strongly approved of the House Minority Leader. 35% said they “somewhat approved.” 23% either somewhat or strongly disapproved, and the remaining 27% were “not sure.” Of course, that disapproval most likely comes from many of the Trump-leaning folks who would rather see a far-right Republican like Jim Jordan become the Speaker. But whatever the case may be, here you have Kevin McCarthy, a representative in Congress with little full-throated support from either his constituents or his colleagues, an extremist wing trying to drag him into their dark hole of conspiracy, and an ambition holding him to a shaky center.
Does this seem like a guy who should take the Speaker’s gavel? Mental turmoil and political calamity don’t make for good bedfellows. I can imagine the chaos in McCarthy’s mind. When he was helping Bill Thomas as a young buck, when he was a young Republican, when he was getting his feet wet in California and national politics, I doubt McCarthy thought he’d ever have to deal with as much pressure as he’s facing now. Or maybe he did. Maybe he’s prepared for this moment his whole life. And if that’s the case, he should show that he’s not going to cower to his base or the far-right or the opposition. He should show that he can hold that gavel with a steady hand.
But first, he ought to go back to Bakersfield. Take some time off, Kev. Meet the old neighbors, talk to them, get their viewpoints. As a native son of the Inland Empire, you owe your birthplace a nice, long visit.