In his furious wheeling and dealing to obtain power, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) could well have made promises to the most radical members that he cannot deliver or has no intention of acting on. A cynical speaker and cynical MAGA dissidents may be conning each other as part of their performance politics to impress the base. But this goes beyond partisan intrigue. In the case of defense spending, even an empty promise may have serious national security ramifications.
Bloomberg reported that part of the agreement under discussion was to “cap fiscal year 2024 discretionary spending across government at 2022 levels.” In that year, Pentagon spending was set at roughly $782 billion — $75 billion less than in fiscal 2023. Therefore, if you take McCarthy at his word, he intends to cut $75 billion from defense.
Recall that one of the big gets for Senate Republicans in the end-of-year budget talks was a bigger defense budget. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) crowed, “This bill will significantly grow the baseline for defense and significantly cut the baseline for non-defense, non-veterans, after inflation. A big real-dollar increase for the defense baseline.” He might want to check with the MAGA House Republicans if he wants to sustain that level of funding.
Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute tells me such a defense budget “makes only authoritarians, despots and dictators smile.” She adds, “It completely ignores the troops and is entirely divorced from strategic thought or the many and varied threats the country faces.”
Responsible Democrats and Republicans were justifiably horrified. Former CIA agent Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, also raised the red flag. “As the Chinese Communist Party is increasing its military spending, Ukraine is under siege, and Iran and North Korea are watching, cutting our nation’s defense spending is shortsighted and dangerous,” she tweeted. “And doing it for Speaker votes is unconscionable.”
Former GOP House member Liz Cheney, a ferocious hawk and McCarthy critic, likewise warned, “Ronald Reagan taught us that weakness is provocative. China and Russia are watching. If [McCarthy] agreed to weaken our national defense for his own personal gain, that will be his legacy, and our nation will suffer.”
If the members manhandling McCarthy aren’t serious and he is handing out empty promises, America’s enemies are unlikely to understand the fine points of MAGA internal deceit. They will certainly interpret talk of a massive defense cut as a sign that this Congress will tie up U.S. national security spending, including support for Ukraine and Taiwan. The suggestion that lawmakers are less than resolute will, as Cheney suggests, raise the risk they will challenge U.S. interests.
The Republicans’ promise is a telling indication of the party’s direction. “These guys are determined to complete the transformation of the GOP into an isolationist party that doesn’t give a damn about what happens outside America’s borders, so long as we can keep people from ever crossing our borders,” said Tom Malinowski, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey and State Department official. “You can say all day to these people that if we gut defense spending and withdraw from global leadership, [Vladimir] Putin and Xi Jinping will win, but they honestly don’t care.”
As a political matter, House MAGA Republicans seem bent on making themselves and whoever gets their presidential nomination unelectable in 2024. They’ve already demonstrated a dangerous lack of competence and seriousness about the needs of the country.
McCarthy, at the beck and call of the insurrectionist caucus, cannot very well deny he made such deal. Hanging over his head is the potential that any single member could move to vacate the chair (i.e., kick him out). Alternatively, he could rely on the Senate to nix the sort of draconian budget the MAGA gang has in mind. Then what? The dissidents could insist on a shutdown or, worse, force a default on the debt.
This is only the beginning of the chaos that may ensue when a speaker allows the most irresponsible elements in his party to neuter him. As GOP dysfunction stymies the House, Senate Republicans and 2024 presidential contenders auditioning to be commander in chief will have to say whether they approve of the MAGA House antics.
The danger for the GOP has always been that a short stint in irresponsible governance will wake up the electorate to their manifest unfitness, thereby dooming the party’s chances in 2024. The danger for the country is that, in the meantime, the MAGA extremists will do permanent damage to the U.S. economy and national security.