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Speaker McCarthy Is Feeling the Heat

A huge number of his members have no idea what they’re doing. Legislating is a skill—maybe even an art — for which it’s useful for members to have experience with something beyond mouthing off and posing for cheesy photos with their favorite firearms

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy,Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Pity poor Kevin McCarthy. Having sold his soul and torched his dignity to win his dream gig, the fledgling speaker of the House is struggling to find his groove.

Even as the House gears back up after recess, Mr. McCarthy is having relationship troubles with key members of his own team. These notably include Steve Scalise, the majority leader, and Jodey Arrington, who, as chairman of the Budget Committee, is in charge of putting together Republicans’ hotly anticipated spending proposal. (Or, more accurately, their proposal for slashing spending.) The speaker is said to have lost confidence in — and been privately dumping on — both men, The Times reported. (Mr. McCarthy has rejected that family fissures exist.)

Some Capitol Hill denizens suspect Mr. McCarthy remains disgruntled about his messy speaker’s race, during which, The Times noted, Mr. Arrington reportedly floated Mr. Scalise’s name for the top job. Whatever their origins, such tensions risk exacerbating Republican leaders’ struggles to rally their fractious, scrawny majority around legislative initiatives.

Indeed, the early report cards for this Congress have been underwhelming, prompting an unflattering assessment of Mr. McCarthy’s tenure compared with those of past Republican speakers such as Newt Gingrich and John Boehner. This conference has managed to pass its top legislative priority, a sprawling energy package that has a snowball’s chance of advancing through the Senate. But, thanks to internecine squabbling, Republicans have had to delay several major measures they had aimed to address early on, including a border security bill and a budget plan. Likewise, their orgy of investigations into all things Biden has had trouble gaining traction. Some Republicans have begun voicing concerns about the conference’s overall focus.

These are high-stakes times not only for Mr. McCarthy but for many of his team leaders as well. To which one can only say: Welcome to the majority, fellas.

Being in charge is hard. Sure, life in the House majority means you get to set the rules and shape the agenda for the chamber. But you also are expected to occasionally get stuff done, which is way harder than most folks realize.

Back in 2009, the minority leader at the time, Mr. Boehner — who by then had endured a couple of spins through the majority-minority cycle — stressed to me the burden of running things. “One of the great shocks of 1994 was — we had won the majority, and no one in our caucus had ever been in the majority — no one realized how much more work it is,” he recalled. “You hand the football off to a fullback, and he’s gotta run with it.”

And as most politicians can attest, it is easier to rally disparate factions around saying “no” than to figure out something they will all say “yes” to — especially when it comes to complex legislation.

Mr. McCarthy is laboring under especially adverse conditions. It’s tough enough that his majority is thinner than Fox News’s journalistic credibility. Complicating matters, a huge number of his members have never served in the majority before and have no idea what they’re doing. Legislating is a skill — maybe even an art — for which it’s useful for members to have experience with something beyond mouthing off and posing for cheesy photos with their favorite firearms.

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Strictly speaking, it isn’t entirely Mr. McCarthy’s fault that his conference is chock-full of MAGA chaos monkeys with zero interest in legislating. But it is on him that, in scrounging up the votes last winter to become speaker, he made all kinds of concessions to a cadre of those wing nuts. He promised to give priority to their issues, like refusing to raise the debt ceiling without forcing commensurate spending cuts. And he gave them seats on influential committees that increased their negotiating leverage and ability to make mischief. It was as though Mr. McCarthy were trying to engineer the most dysfunctional conference imaginable. Mission accomplished.

Further killing the conference’s vibe: Investigation-palooza has been a bit of a flop so far. It’s not that the grand inquisitors on the Oversight Committee and other panels aren’t working hard. They’re issuing subpoenas, conducting interviews, scheduling hearings and all the usual rigmarole. They just don’t yet have anything much to show for all that effort.

The Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, helmed by the chronically belligerent Jim Jordan, has drawn particular criticism, especially after its first hearing fizzled in February. This, predictably, has made Mr. Jordan only more determined than ever to find someone in the anti-MAGA Deep State to blame for something. He requested more funding for his work. He pledged to send out a slew of new subpoenas. In recent weeks, he has even begun meddling in the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into Donald Trump’s porn-star payoff imbroglio. So much fury. So little progress.

Some observers posit that the investigators are suffering from a lack of focus. Others say they just need time to adjust to being in the majority. Still others have blamed staffing issues, turf battles and even Mr. Jordan’s leadership style.

But clearly part of the problem is that Republican lawmakers overinflated the expectations of their voters. During last year’s midterms, the G.O.P. faithful were promised that a Republican-run House would deliver smoking guns and White House officials in cuffs — maybe even the president’s son! The base wants those things right now, and it is in no mood to be patient.

“All of us hear from constituents that they’re very anxious for results,” Mike Johnson, a member of the Republican leadership, told Politico recently. Last month, Fox News’s Jesse Watters channeled this boiling anxiety into a glorious on-air meltdown: “Make me feel better, guys. Tell me this is going somewhere. Can I throw someone in prison? Can someone go to jail? Can someone get fined?”

In Republicans’ defense, Mr. McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, made running the House look deceptively easy, even when dealing with her own narrow majority. But Ms. Pelosi was a once-in-a-generation leader with a rare gift for herding the cats. Mr. McCarthy and his crew, by contrast, look more like the dog that caught the car.

This does not bode well for looming debates over crucial issues such as raising the debt ceiling. The things House Republicans have shown themselves adept at — stunts, standoffs and shutdowns — aren’t all that useful for hammering out deals. McCarthy & Company appear to be rolling into important negotiations with no clear direction beyond thwarting the Democrats. This might delight the warriors in the party’s base, but it would serve the American people poorly.

[Michelle Cottle is a member of the Times editorial board, focusing on U.S. politics. She has covered Washington and politics since the Clinton administration. @mcottle]