GOP leader breaks promise to Tea Party: Why Kevin McCarthy has a terrible job

McCarthy said he'd let the Export-Import bank die this month -- but the realities of governing forced him to renege

Published September 10, 2014 3:44PM (EDT)

  (AP/Molly Riley)
(AP/Molly Riley)

Being the majority leader of a major political party is a terrible job that no normal person would ever want. That’s particularly true of the Republican Party, which is divided and unruly to the point of being completely ungovernable. The poor sap charged with trying to set a legislative agenda that unifies this fractious gaggle of malcontents has an impossible task that will leave him broken and, in the end, despised by his own caucus. Upon being unceremoniously dumped from the position, his only reward will be the several million dollars he’ll receive from a lobbying firm and/or Wall Street bank to schmooze with his former colleagues.

This brings us to current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who’s only been on the job for a couple of months and is already poised to break the first promise he made to conservatives in his party.

If you’ll recall, McCarthy’s predecessor, Eric Cantor, suffered a surprise primary defeat in June at the hands of David Brat, a loopy economics professor with extremely conservative views and the backing of some high-powered right-wing radio hosts. Brat’s campaign was premised on the notion that Cantor was insufficiently conservative and a “crony capitalist” who was more responsive to the interests of Wall Street than conservative voters. When Cantor went down, the Tea Party demanded that one of their own be elected majority leader. The House GOP nodded politely and then ignored them completely and ushered McCarthy into the position with a minimum of fuss.

McCarthy, however, realized that he had to give the Tea Party something if he wanted to have any sort of credibility with the hard-right conservatives in the House Republican caucus. And so he went on Fox News Sunday and offered up the Export-Import Bank as a sacrificial offering to appease the cranky right. The bank provides federally subsidized loans to overseas companies so that they can purchase American-made goods, and more than a few conservatives consider it to be corporate welfare. Its charter comes up for reauthorization this month, and McCarthy told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that he would just let it expire:

MCCARTHY: We've got hearings going on next week in financial service, which I sit on. I think Ex-Im Bank is one that government does not have to be involved in. The private sector can do it.

WALLACE: So straightforward question, you can say it right here. You would allow the Ex-Im Bank to expire in September?

MCCARTHY: Yes, because it's something that the private sector can be able to do.

This was a legitimate move to the right for McCarthy (he’d supported the bank in the past and helped quash conservative efforts to kill it) and a good way to protect himself from the “crony capitalist” charge that dogged his predecessor.

But, as is so often the case, the political ground shifted beneath McCarthy’s feet, and now it looks like he has to break his promise on the Export-Import Bank.

Coming into this September’s abbreviated session, House congressional leaders formulated a strategy to prevent Ted Cruz and other conservative mischief-makers from shutting down the government or causing any sort of drawn-out fights over legislation that could cause political headaches for the GOP. This means passing a continuing resolution to fund the government and a temporary reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank’s charter, and then heading back out on the campaign trail as soon as possible.

Conservative activists, as one would expect, are not on board with this strategy. Heritage Action, which has emerged as the chief constable of the conservative purity patrol, is opposing any effort to attach the Ex-Im reauthorization to the continuing resolution, and won’t support any “stand-alone measure” to extend the bank’s charter. The group also joined with the Club for Growth to write a letter to McCarthy politely reminding him of what he said about the Ex-Im Bank in June:

We were greatly encouraged by your comments on Fox News Sunday on June 22, in which you stated that the Export-Import Bank is “something government does not have to be involved in. The private sector can do it.” You also quite explicitly answered “yes” to the question of whether you would allow the charter for the bank to expire.

And so McCarthy is stuck. He promised activists that he would let the bank die this month. But the leadership doesn’t want to rock the boat before the elections. Boehner has already signaled that the bank will be reauthorized, likely by attaching an amendment to the continuing resolution. This means McCarthy will have to go back on his word.

This is the inevitable consequence of being a leader of the modern Republican Party. You can pander all you want to the Tea Party and try to convince them that you’re down for the struggle, but at some point there is going to be an irreconcilable tension between the increasingly anti-government demands of the GOP’s conservative base and the responsibilities of actually ensuring that the government continues to function.

Cantor was about as conservative and obstructionist a majority leader as a Republican could hope for: He stymied Obama at just about every turn, rallied the caucus to oppose every big initiative from the White House, and made sure that the government accomplished as little as possible. And he got booted after a Tea Party crank successfully painted him as a sellout.

McCarthy is cut from the same cloth as Cantor, so it was inevitable that he would have to break with the activists and bring down the wrath of the base. It’s just remarkable that it’s happening so quickly.

By Simon Maloy

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