Kevin McCarthy’s stewardship of the House Republican conference has not been a smooth ride. That is in part a byproduct of the unwieldy conference he leads — former speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) once reflected that assuming the job rendered him the mayor of “Crazytown” — but the problem is also McCarthy himself. He often seems to be holding on for dear life.
Even as the speaker on Tuesday thrust the House into an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, there was a stark indication that this was all very seat-of-the-pants.
McCarthy announced that he will task three committees with beginning the inquiry. All will focus on nonspecific and unsubstantiated suggestions of wrongdoing by Biden.
And he is apparently doing this without holding a House vote.
That is not unprecedented; House Democrats broke tradition when they began their impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump in 2019 without a vote. (An inquiry is generally a precursor to a formal impeachment, which does require a vote.) But McCarthy’s move comes mere days after he emphasized that his House would not conduct such business that way.
In a statement to Breitbart News published just 11 days ago, McCarthy volunteered that such a step would come with a vote. More than that, he cast that vote as being indicative of how the process would not be marred by politics.
“To open an impeachment inquiry is a serious matter, and House Republicans would not take it lightly or use it for political purposes. The American people deserve to be heard on this matter through their elected representatives,” McCarthy said. “That’s why, if we move forward with an impeachment inquiry, it would occur through a vote on the floor of the People’s House and not through a declaration by one person.”
McCarthy offered no indication there would be a vote during his three-minute news conference Tuesday morning, suggesting he had indeed done this “through a declaration by one person.”
By the logic McCarthy himself volunteered, the fact that the House won’t vote renders the inquiry somewhat less legitimate and more political.
It’s been no secret for months that McCarthy was lining up a Biden impeachment inquiry. It’s also been no secret that getting the votes to launch one in a tightly divided House could be difficult, with a number of Republicans urging caution even just regarding an inquiry.
But McCarthy, nonetheless, less than two weeks ago decided to set a standard for this process — a standard he now apparently has declined to apply.
McCarthy wasn’t the only one hailing the significance of a House vote. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the chairman of one of the committees McCarthy has now tasked with the inquiry, signaled as recently as Sunday that this effort would come with a vote. Jordan said a majority vote of the House would help with the “inevitable conflict with the executive branch to get documents and to depose certain witnesses.”
There are a few possible reasons for the about-face. The most apparent one would be that McCarthy doesn’t have the votes (which is quite possible). Another is that he doesn’t want to force vulnerable members into a tough vote (which it would be).
It also seems entirely possible that McCarthy was thrust into something he wasn’t ready for by pressure from his right. McCarthy’s announcement came just an hour before Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was due to speak on the House floor about potentially removing McCarthy as speaker. (The night before his announcement, McCarthy offered a testy response to Gaetz’s efforts: “He should go ahead and do it.”)
Regardless of the reasons, McCarthy dug his own hole on this one.
His move also flagrantly contradicts the position he took during Trump’s first impeachment. After then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) opted to launch an inquiry without a vote in 2019, McCarthy said it was wrong — even that a vote was necessary.
“Speaker Pelosi can’t decide on impeachment unilaterally,” McCarthy said. “It requires a full vote of the House of Representatives.”
McCarthy also filed a resolution disapproving of the inquiry and the lack of a vote on it.
He sent Pelosi a letter stating that not holding a vote, among other potential procedural shortcomings, “would create a process completely devoid of any merit or legitimacy.”
McCarthy can argue that he’s simply following the precedent Pelosi set. But as recently as this month, he effectively committed to his 2019 principles, suggesting that a vote remained vital to ensuring “merit” and “legitimacy.”
Instead, McCarthy has cast a spotlight on the unease within his conference. On top of the lack of evidence of any real wrongdoing by Biden — the very reason many Republicans are uneasy — it’s a clearly inauspicious start to a deeply consequential event.