Opinion: Speaker Kevin McCarthy: how backroom deals have put controversial Republicans in key roles

an image of Dr Thomas Gift
an image of Dr Thomas Gift
Following the election of California Representative Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House of Representatives after 15 rounds of votes, Dr Thomas Gift (UCL Political Science) explores the controversies surrounding the appointments of two Republicans, in The Conversation.

When California Representative Kevin McCarthy finally earned the speaker’s gavel earlier this month after an unprecedented 15 rounds of votes on the House floor, it required a slew of backdoor deals. McCarthy was tight-lipped about all the concessions he had to make to win. But now with his doling out of all-important committee assignments, the details of that horse-trading are rapidly coming into view.

The hotly contested assignments involve two of the most radioactive Republicans on Capitol Hill. New York Representative George Santos has been tapped for the House small business and science committees, and Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene for the House homeland security committee. Both backed McCarthy’s speaker bid from the outset. But there’s plenty of speculation that their support hinged on receiving choice appointments.

The selections are most striking for what they symbolise. Santos has been accused of lying about nearly every aspect of his résumé, including his past business experience. Greene has likewise found herself embroiled in controversy after controversy related to national security. As one journalist observed, McCarthy’s picks of Santos and Greene seem designed for "(depending on your viewpoint) maximum irony or maximum trolling".

Santos and his fantasy claims
The congressman now calling himself George Santos (he’s gone by another name previously) has expressed almost no remorse for the countless lies he’s told voters. Among his most fanciful "embellishments" include those involving finances and prior business activities. Santos claimed he had an MBA from New York University and worked for glitzy financial firms Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. None of that appears to be true. Santos has admitted lying about his career and background, without explaining why. (As it turned out, however, he did work for a call centre.) Santos continues to say that the media is "making outrageous claims" about him.

Yet the depths of Santos’s lies possibly stretch much further, casting even more doubt on the man who will shape regulations and laws governing small businesses. Where Santos made all of his money is one question. When running for Congress in 2020, Santos reported a US$55,000 (£44,000) a year salary; in 2022, that figure was over US$750,000. Previously, Santos worked for a company, Harbor City Capital, that’s been charged with orchestrating a Ponzi scheme, which defrauded investors. The finances of his own corporation, the Devolder Organization, have raised eyebrows, as well.

MTG: the conspiracy queen
Like Santos, Republican firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene is also no stranger to scandal in the area where she’ll have power and oversight. In 2021, she was barred from holding any committee assignments by the Democrat-led House after making violence-inciting comments, including endorsing the execution of prominent Democrats. Since her election, Greene has promoted QAnon’s falsehoods and other conspiracy theories. Detractors insist she’s unfit to serve, much less in an influential post aimed at protecting the US from adversaries.

Most pertinent to her new position on the House homeland security committee, Greene appeared to be a supporter of the raid on the US Capitol and in defending its aftermath. For instance, she remarked that if former Trump strategist Steve Bannon had organised the insurrection, "we would have won" (a quote she later insisted was a joke). In 2019, Greene goaded her Maga allies to "shut down the streets", "flood the Capitol building", and "flood all the government buildings... and go inside". She denies calling for violence and has said she was in favour of a peaceful protest.

What will they do?
Whereas Santos has given little indication of how he might approach the small business committee, Greene’s agenda is much more transparent. Notably, she’ll continue to push back against providing support for Ukraine’s defences against Russia, leading other Republicans in an effort to audit US aid to Kyiv. Additionally, Greene remains committed to curbing undocumented immigration at the US-Mexico border, looking for ways to circumvent what she views as weak-kneed enforcement by the White House.

As lone members on their respective committees, however, critics can take solace that the more extreme impulses of both will probably have limited impact on policy. Several Republican colleagues have had harsh words for both congress members, and moderates will try to quiet, if not silence, their voices. Still, the appointments grant a sheen of legitimacy to two pariahs badly in need of a political makeover. If they run for re-election in 2024, their appointments to high-profile committees won’t hurt them at the polls.

Republican risks
During McCarthy’s speaker fight, experts fixed their gaze on far-right flamethrowers such as Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert who opposed McCarthy from day one. The anti-McCarthy rebels realised his vulnerability, and exploited it in a high-stakes game of "chicken". But less attention was paid to McCarthy’s supporters like Santos and Greene, who’ve ostensibly received quid pro quos.

Wheeling and dealing has always been a part of coalition-building in Washington. But there’s no doubt that McCarthy has pressed it to new levels - and that both Santos and Greene played their cards craftily. McCarthy has denied reports that he’ll be the weakest House speaker in generations. Yet in caving to pressure to elevate two controversial Republicans to coveted House committees, McCarthy has already proven his feebleness.

Ultimately, the committee appointments say more about McCarthy and the fractured state of the Republican party than about Santos and Greene. With a rambunctious conference and a razor-thin majority in the House, McCarthy had little choice but to bargain with the fringes if he wanted his position. Whether swing voters will penalise McCarthy and his allies for the committee picks remains unclear. For now, McCarthy would just as soon keep the selections under the radar.

This article first appeared in  The Conversation  on 20 January 2023.