Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in National Statuary Hall following the House passing a bill focusing on the debt ceiling at the United States Capitol on Wednesday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
10 min

Jen Kiggans had the haunted look of a woman about to walk the plank.

The first-term Republican from Virginia barely took her eyes off her text Wednesday as she read it aloud on the House floor. She tripped over words and used her fingers to keep her place on the page.

The anxiety was understandable. Like about 30 other House Republicans from vulnerable districts, she was about to vote in favor of the GOP’s plan to force spending cuts of about $4.8 trillion as the ransom to be paid for avoiding a default on the federal debt.

“I do have serious concerns with the provision of this legislation that repeals clean-energy investment tax credits, particularly for wind energy,” she read. “These credits have been very beneficial to my constituents, attracting significant investment and new manufacturing jobs for businesses in southeast Virginia.”

Directing a question to Republicans’ chief deputy whip, Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.), she asked for “the gentleman’s assurance that I will be able to address these concerns as we move forward in these negotiations and advocate for the interests of my district.”

The gentleman offered no such assurance. “I support repealing these tax credits,” he replied, offering only the noncommittal promise to “continue to work with the gentlewoman from Virginia, just like we will with all members.”

Kiggans then cast her vote to abolish the clean-energy credits her constituents find so “beneficial.”

House GOP leaders are celebrating their ability to pass their debt plan, even though it has no chance of surviving the Senate nor President Biden’s veto pen. But the bill’s passage has achieved one thing that cannot be undone: It has put 217 House Republicans on record in favor of demolishing popular government services enjoyed by their constituents.

In Kiggans’s Virginia, the legislation she just backed would strip tax incentives that go to the likes of Dominion Energy, which is building a $9.8 billion offshore wind project in her district. She also voted to ax solar and electric-vehicle incentives for hundreds of thousands of Virginians, and tax breaks projected to bring $11.6 billion in clean-power investment to the commonwealth.

In addition, the bill she supported sets spending targets that require an immediate 22 percent cut to all “non-defense discretionary spending” — that’s border security, the FBI, airport security, air traffic control, highways, agriculture programs, veterans’ health programs, food stamps, Medicaid, medical research, national parks and much more. If they want to cut less than 22 percent in some of those areas, they’ll have to cut more than 22 percent in others.

According to an administration analysis of what the 22 percent cuts translate to, Kiggans is now on record supporting:

Shutting down at least two air traffic control towers in Virginia.

Jeopardizing outpatient medical care for 162,300 Virginia veterans.

Throwing up to 175,000 Virginians off food stamps and ending food assistance for another 25,000 through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Cutting or ending Pell Grants for 162,900 Virginia college students.

Eliminating Head Start for 3,600 Virginia children and child care for another 1,300 children.

Adding at least two months to wait times for Virginia seniors seeking assistance with Social Security and Medicare.

Denying opioid treatment for more than 600 Virginians.

Ending 180 days of rail inspections per year and 1,350 fewer miles of track inspected.

Kicking 13,400 Virginia families off rental assistance.

Similar calculations can be made for the other 30 House Republicans targeted by Democrats in the 2024 elections who joined Kiggans in walking the plank. Since enactment of the clean-energy credits Republicans have now voted to repeal, for example, clean-energy projects worth some $198 billion and 77,261 jobs have moved forward in districts represented by Republicans, according to the advocacy group Climate Power.

Kiggans, in her floor speech attempting to disavow the cuts she was about to vote for, suggested she was casting her yea vote only because “this bill is not the final product” and it “gets us to the negotiating table.”

But the record is now clear. Kiggans and other House Republicans just voted to curb or eliminate a huge swath of government services that Americans rely on — and their constituents ought to know it.

Immediately after GOP leaders muscled their debt limit bill through the House Wednesday evening, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy rushed into Statuary Hall to claim victory.

“We’ve done our job,” he exulted. “You’ve underestimated us,” he added.

His colleagues, likewise, were all backslaps and cheers on the House floor.

It was quite a bit of exuberance for a bill that, as many Republicans said aloud, was intended only to force Biden to the negotiating table. And even that came at extraordinary cost.

Soon after Republicans assumed the House majority in January, McCarthy said that “our very first responsibility” was “to pass a budget.”

But the majority couldn’t pass a budget.

McCarthy promised, as part of his speakership bid, to come up with a plan to eliminate the federal deficit within 10 years.

But the majority could come up with no such plan.

McCarthy vowed to restore “regular order” in the House, promising that legislation would work its way through committees. “You can’t just throw something on the floor,” he said in January.

The Post's View: This is not 2011. A U.S. default would be even worse now.

But only six of 30 bills so far followed “regular order,” according to a tally by Democrats on the House Rules Committee that Republicans did not dispute. And this week, McCarthy threw on the floor, without a single committee hearing, “the largest spending cut in American history” (as Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, head of the 173-member House Republican Study Committee, put it).

Members of McCarthy’s leadership team said Monday that they would not change this legislation to appease GOP holdouts, decreeing that “we’re done negotiating” and vowing that they’re “not opening this up” to changes.

The next day, McCarthy made a slew of last-minute changes to win over the holdouts.

House GOP leaders dismissed as unworkable a demand by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to impose, almost immediately, sweeping new work requirements on millions of food stamp and Medicaid recipients.

They then amended the legislation to include the unworkable provision. (And Gaetz still voted against the bill.)

McCarthy had promised, as part of his speakership bid, an “open amendment process” on the House floor.

Yet he allowed no amendments to the debt bill on the House floor.

Republicans long howled about “giant bills negotiated in secret, then jammed through on a party-line vote in the middle of the night.” They objected, in particular, to Democrats’ use of a legislative trick called a “self-executing rule” that allowed them to “deem and pass” legislation (including part of Obamacare) without a straight up-or-down vote.

But this week, they jammed their giant, secretly negotiated debt-limit bill through the Rules Committee on a party-line vote — at 2:19 a.m. And they did it with a “deem and pass” rule.

Even then, after all the reversals and surrenders, the bill came within one vote of failing. The lawmaker who cast the final, deciding vote? Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.).

How apt that this legislation, built on one broken promise after another, should be carried over the finish line by the world’s most famous liar.

It’s just as well that Santos, by dramatically delaying his vote until the end of the roll call, made himself the face of the debt bill. Those who should have drafted it had no interest in claiming paternity.

At the Rules Committee hearing on the bill Wednesday evening, the ranking Democrat, Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), asked Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason Smith (R-Mo.) why Republicans circumvented the committee process.

“I’m not — I’m not in charge,” protested Smith, looking around incredulously with wide eyes.

In a sense, nobody is in charge. The rookie Ways and Means chairman, just three months on the job, doesn’t know which end is up. Neither does the rookie Budget Committee chairman, who was sidelined by the rookie speaker, who presides over a caucus where the median congressional tenure is just four years.

At the start of this manufactured debt-limit crisis, I worried that ideological extremism might drive the nation to a first-ever default. But an equal threat to America’s full faith and credit may be incompetence. Those in the House majority don’t know what they don’t know.

The Treasury is forecast to go into default in June. But Rep. Tim Burchett (Tenn.), emerging from the GOP caucus meeting Wednesday morning, told a group of us that “we’re not going to default.” Why? “I think September’s the actual drop-dead date, so we’re good.”

Coming out of the same meeting, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) still seemed confused about what happens when the government defaults. (Hint: It has nothing to do with a government shutdown.) “Let the Senate shut the government down,” he proclaimed. “Let them take the heat for shutting it down.”

At the Rules Committee hearing, Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.) offered his view that the Federal Reserve is “not an independent agency.” (It is.)

And, as The Post’s Paul Kane reported, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (Minn.), Burchett and others have been erroneously claiming that they drafted the debt-limit bill using a process known as the “committee of the whole.” That is an actual procedure on the House floor — but it has absolutely nothing to do with the backroom shenanigans Republicans used to write their bill.

Many Republicans, like Kiggans, swallowed their misgivings.

Rep. Nancy Mace (S.C.) complained to my Post colleagues about the repeal of green energy tax credits and said the bill “doesn’t do anything to balance the budget.” She voted yes anyway.

Rep. Victoria Spartz (Ind.), during the floor debate, protested the lack of action in reforming entitlement programs. “Ninety percent of spending is not even considered by this institution,” she said. She voted yes anyway.

Spartz is right about the scope of the problem. Any serious effort to tackle the federal debt would need to deal with all parts of the problem: entitlement programs, taxes, defense and domestic spending. By refusing to consider entitlement and revenue as Biden did in his proposed budget (the president proposed a higher Medicare tax on the wealthy and closing tax loopholes that benefit the super-rich), and by ruling out defense cuts, Republicans are wringing 100 percent of the cuts from just 15 to 20 percent of the budget.

Unfortunately, the one-vote margin of passage leaves McCarthy almost no room to maneuver in talks with Biden.

Hard-liners in the House Freedom Caucus have made clear they won’t accept a watering down of the House-passed bill. Norman told me and other reporters that he won’t support — and that House leadership promised not to take up — any proposal that isn’t “substantially just like what we have.”

At a news conference after this week’s GOP caucus meeting, Fox News’s Chad Pergram pointed out that the House debt bill was just “a dress rehearsal” for the actual debt-limit standoff in a couple of months.

“If it’s that hard to get your side in order,” he asked, “does that give confidence to the markets?”

Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.) dodged. “I wouldn’t call it hard as much as thoughtful,” he said.

If the week’s chaos is the House GOP leadership’s idea of thoughtful, this would be an excellent time to unload your Treasury bonds.