The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Can you govern on a lie? House Republicans give it a try.

Former Trump administration interior secretary and incoming Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) sits among empty seats in the House Chamber on Jan. 6. (Jon Cherry/Reuters)
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Ryan Zinke stepped up to the microphone and into the Twilight Zone.

“Despite the ‘deep state’s’ repeated attempts to stop me, I stand before you as a duly elected member of the United States Congress and tell you that a deep state exists and is perhaps the strongest covert weapon the left has against the American people,” he told the House. The Montana Republican, who has returned to Congress after a scandal-plagued stint in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, informed his colleagues that “the deep state runs secret messaging campaigns” and is trying “to wipe out the American cowboy.”

On Jan. 12, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters that Congress should investigate President Biden's handling of classified documents. (Video: The Washington Post)

Yee-haw! Zinke was speaking in support of a new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, or, as Democrats call it, the “Tinfoil Hat Committee.” In substance, it’s the QAnon committee, with a remit to probe the “deep state” and other wacky conspiracy theories. With the panel’s creation, QAnon completes its journey from message board for the paranoid to official policy of the House Republican majority.

Ruth Marcus: A new House ‘Church committee’? More like an exercise in revenge.

After the chaos of the first week of the 118th Congress, many Americans wondered: If it took them 15 ballots just to choose a speaker, how could Republicans possibly govern? Now we know. They are going to govern by fantasy and legislate on the basis of fiction.

On Monday, their first day of legislative business, they voted to repeal funding for a fictitious “87,000 IRS agents” who don’t exist and never will. On Wednesday, they approved legislation purporting to outlaw infanticide, which is already illegal and always has been. In between, they set up the deep state committee.

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What next? Sorry, that’s secret. And therein might be the biggest falsehood of all. After numerous promises of “transparency” from the new leaders, they are refusing to reveal multiple backroom concessions Kevin McCarthy made to secure the speakership. You might even call it a conspiracy of silence.


Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the GOP conference chair, boasted this week that “we passed the most … transparent rules package in history.” McCarthy tweeted that the new rules would “increase transparency” and that “Republicans are keeping our commitment to make Congress more open.”

Alas, the transparency claims could not survive the light of day. Punchbowl News reported that McCarthy’s team had inked a secret three-page “addendum” to the rules package outlining the giveaways he bartered with holdouts blocking him from becoming speaker.

McCarthy, in a caucus meeting Tuesday, reportedly denied the addendum existed. Alas for McCarthy, other Republican lawmakers claimed to have read the document whose existence McCarthy denied.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) told Axios he was personally reviewing the document. Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) acknowledged that “it has to be out there.”

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), leaving the caucus meeting in the Capitol basement Tuesday, told a group of journalists that there remained “questions that I think many of us have about what side deals may or may not have been made.”

Jason Willick: How the new GOP House panel could target a real threat to democracy

On the floor, where Democrats were hollering about the “secret three-page addendum,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), who negotiated much of the deal, countered that it was “classic swamp speak” to be “talking about secret deals.” But negotiating such secret deals is totally fine?

One change Republicans did reveal is the gutting of the Office of Congressional Ethics (it won’t be able to hire new staff when current employees leave), which will help shield lawmakers’ wrongdoing from public scrutiny. Also made known: a commitment to vote on abolishing the IRS and eliminating income taxes.

The one beacon of transparency in this sea of opacity? McCarthy’s leading critic, Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). He wants to free C-SPAN cameras to film the House floor the way they did during last week’s speaker-vote chaos — during which the incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee was physically restrained from lunging at Gaetz.


Steve Scalise is the ideal majority leader for the post-truth era.

Boasting to reporters about passage of “the bill to repeal those 87,000 IRS agents,” he claimed that the Congressional Budget Office “confirmed” that those agents would “go after people making less than $200,000 a year,” including “the single mom who’s working two shifts at a restaurant.”

In reality, the IRS is hiring only about 6,500 agents — and that’s over a decade. In reality, the CBO said that only “a small fraction” of revenue from increased enforcement would come from taxpayers earning less than $400,000 a year.

Here’s what else CBO said: The Republicans’ bill to cut funds to the IRS — the new majority’s first legislation — would add $114 billion to the deficit. So much for fiscal responsibility.

But Republicans spent the entire debate repeating the outright falsehood that 87,000 “agents” would “target American working-class families” (Jason T. Smith, Mo.) and “harass and spy on middle-class and low-income families” (Michelle Steel, Calif.). Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) falsely said the CBO had projected “as many as 700,000 more audits, [of] Americans making less than $75,000 a year.”

Beth Van Duyne (R-Tex.) added the inventive claim that the fake agents would “make the IRS larger than the Pentagon, State Department, FBI and Border Control together.” The Defense Department alone employs about 3 million people.

Greg Sargent: Church Committee aide rips House Republicans: 'A sad spectacle'

Former majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told the House it was the “most dishonest, demagogic rhetoric that I have seen.” But he hadn’t yet witnessed the infanticide debate.


“If a baby is born alive, outside the womb, alive, how could you kill that baby and that be legal?” Scalise asked during debate on the Republicans’ “born-alive” abortion bill. “And yet in a number of states, it is legal and happening today.”

No, it isn’t. Infanticide, of course, has always been murder, and a 2002 “born alive” law affirmed that.

The dispute is limited to rare cases, typically involving a fetus born or aborted with a medical condition that isn’t survivable: Should it be treated with heroic measures or compassionate care? Infanticide isn’t on the table.

The bill was one of three antiabortion measures House Republicans prioritized in their first week of legislating: New House rules promising a vote on permanently banning federal abortion funds, a denunciation of violence against antiabortion groups and the born-alive bill.

It was a curious response to the 2022 elections, when voters angered by the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade propelled Democrats to better-than-expected results, and abortion rights supporters prevailed even in red states such as Kentucky and Kansas. “We learned nothing from the midterms if this is how we’re going to operate in the first week,” complained Mace, the South Carolina Republican. “What are we doing to protect victims of rape and victims of incest? Nothing.” She said her GOP colleagues were only “muddying the waters and paying lip service.”

Perhaps that’s to be expected from a GOP leadership in which, as Business Insider pointed out, there will be more guys named “Mike” running committees — six — than there are women in charge of them (just three of the 21 chairs). The old boys of the House Republican caucus might benefit from a Mike drop.


What will be the priorities of this new House majority? Well, let us take them at their word.

Fox News host Sean Hannity visited the Rayburn Room off the House floor this week where, under the watchful eye of a George Washington oil portrait, he broadcast interviews with McCarthy and his leadership team.

Total mentions of inflation: 1.

Total mentions of jobs: 1.

Total mentions of the economy: 2.

Total mentions of investigations: 20.

“Thank you, brother,” McCarthy said to Hannity before they got down to probing all of the planned probes: investigating the FBI, DOJ, China, the “weaponized” feds, the Afghanistan pullout, covid-19’s origins, Anthony Fauci, the “Biden family syndicate,” Hunter Biden’s laptop and more.

And now: President Biden’s handling of classified documents. Intelligence Committee Chairman Michael R. Turner (Ohio), who dismissed Trump’s hoarding of classified documents as a “bookkeeping issue,” now demands “a full and thorough review” of Biden’s conduct. Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (Ky.), who said probing the Trump documents would “not be a priority,” said of Biden’s documents: “We’re probing it.”

Oversight is important, but the deep state committee in particular goes beyond oversight and into the realm of vengeance. Under the chairmanship of the voluble Jim Jordan (Ohio), it gives lawmakers powers to interfere in active criminal investigations — including, potentially, investigations into themselves. (Six House Republicans requested pardons from then-President Trump for their role in trying to overturn the 2020 election.)

On the floor, the committee’s proponents didn’t hide their conspiracy beliefs. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) meandered into remarks about the FBI spying on Frank Sinatra before proclaiming: “Mr. Speaker, today we are putting the deep state on notice. We are coming for you.”

House Republicans gave themselves another tool of vengeance by reviving the Holman Rule, which allows lawmakers to cut the salaries of individual federal employees. They’re also planning to kick Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) off the Intelligence Committee, explicitly as punishment for handling Trump’s first impeachment.

By contrast, McCarthy has promised committee assignments to George Santos (R-N.Y.), who won election on a fabricated life story and résumé. Santos faces multiple investigations, and New York Republicans (including members of Congress) have called him a “fraud” and a “joke” and demanded he resign.

But McCarthy is having none of it. “He is seated,” said the man who chose to seat Santos. “If there is a concern, he will go through Ethics,” said the man who just disemboweled the Office of Congressional Ethics. McCarthy’s logic is as obvious as it is unprincipled: Without Santos, his four-vote majority would become a three-vote majority.

Even the four-vote majority is confounding McCarthy. House Republicans had planned this week to vote on a pair of symbolic resolutions expressing support for law enforcement. But they had to pull the bills from the floor; they didn’t have the votes.

If McCarthy can’t get his fractious caucus to agree on the easy stuff, what happens when he has to avoid defaulting on the federal debt in a few months? McCarthy, who promised not to approve a debt-limit increase without massive spending cuts, has no room to maneuver — and he has legislative rookies running key committees.

House Republicans and their usual allies in the media had already been trading epithets: “fraud.” “Harlot.” “Benedict Arnold.” “Insurrectionists.” And now comes word that Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and other Republican moderates, in a sign of their lack of faith in McCarthy, have begun talks with Democrats about a “discharge petition.” That would circumvent GOP leaders, increasing the debt limit without them.

Republican leaders are right to be paranoid about “weaponization.” But the biggest conspiracy might come from within.