Opinion The hidden danger posed by a MAGA takeover of the House

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HR King
May 29, 2001
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By Greg Sargent
Columnist |
September 8, 2022 at 12:47 p.m. EDT


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With Republicans favored to win the House, you’re already hearing a mind-numbing refrain: Once in the majority, Republicans plan to pursue “retribution” against President Biden and Democrats. How? By launching all kinds of investigations as payback on Donald Trump’s behalf.
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This idea is already getting reproduced uncritically by major news organizations. The result is to create the impression that Republicans are merely telegraphing plans for some conventional political tit-for-tat.
But that obfuscates what is more likely the real story: Republicans are pre-fabricating a fake rationale to abuse their investigative powers in a way that isn’t remotely comparable to anything Democrats are doing. Such GOP spin deserves much more serious skepticism.
This reality is pressed on us by a new report in the New York Times that documents just how extreme some of this cycle’s House GOP candidates are.
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As the Times notes, any GOP majority will probably be narrower than appeared likely earlier this year. A slim majority — plus the fact that the Trump-loyal America First Caucus is likely to grow — means GOP leaders will struggle to control their ranks. The Times predicts government shutdowns, debt-ceiling defaults and impeachments of everyone from the president down to the aide who oversees the White House Easter egg hunt.


But the threat of a MAGA House takeover is even worse than this. That’s because a MAGA-fied House will have another, underdiscussed tactic at its disposal: using its fiscal and investigative powers to try to defund or hobble any and all investigations and prosecutions involving Trump.
How might this work? Here’s one way: A GOP majority could reinstate an obscure House rule permitting Republicans to use spending bills to zero out salaries of specific federal officials, or nix blocks of federal employees, functionally killing specific programs.
For instance, they might attempt to kill the salary of Attorney General Merrick Garland. Or they could try to defund — or cancel — any ongoing law enforcement investigations of Trump.
We need to distinguish this tactic from defunding the FBI, which GOP members such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia have demanded. In a more MAGA-fied House, that effort might find support, but most Republicans probably wouldn’t back a wholesale dismantling of federal law enforcement.
By contrast, a more targeted attempt to defund specific officials or investigations could be harder for voters to understand and thus more politically inviting for Republicans.
“It is likely that they would use this process to block investigations and prosecutions of Trump,” congressional scholar Norm Ornstein told me. Indeed, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) recently floated exactly this idea. It’s being talked about. It’s real.
Obviously such an effort would be opposed by the White House and the Senate (if Democrats keep it). But a faction of House Republicans could threaten to shut down the government while demanding those targeted cuts protecting Trump, Ornstein says.
Even worse, they could use debt-ceiling fights to try to leverage those Trump-protecting cuts. “They could say, ‘We’ll let this whole country go into default unless you stop all these probes of Trump,’” Ornstein told me.
This becomes harder to avoid when you look at GOP candidates likely to win House seats. As the Times details, they include numerous people who are already vowing to use their powers to continue contesting Trump’s 2020 loss with sham investigations, among other tactics.
Here’s another threat: Such Republicans might try to influence the 2024 election. If a corrupt GOP governor were to take over a swing state — say, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania — and were to certify electors for Trump or an imitator in defiance of the popular vote, a House GOP majority in thrall to Trump could count those electors. Without reform of the Electoral Count Act, that would mean chaos.
A lot will turn on whether as speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) would defy the Trumpist bloc and seek majorities with Democrats. Ornstein’s view: “McCarthy won’t do anything to block or counter the crazies.”
There will be a strong temptation to treat these threats as the tea party redux. While crazed opposition to President Barack Obama drove that era’s chaos, it was aimed at discernible policy goals such as repealing Obamacare or forcing spending cuts. This time will be different.
The threats of chaos won’t be about realizing fiscal priorities in any meaningful sense; they will more likely be cultishly devoted to preserving one man’s absolute impunity. A sizable bloc of House Republicans may well see it as a higher mission to put Trump beyond the reach of accountability and above the law.
With the House Jan. 6 select committee, Democrats are running a legitimate congressional investigation into Trump’s incitement of a mob assault on the U.S. seat of government. The Justice Department search warrant for Mar-a-Lago followed lawful processes and was approved by a judge.
If and when GOP plans in response come into sharper focus, let’s not uncritically describe it as “revenge” or “retribution.” Such words take it as given that GOP conduct will be in some meaningful sense retaliatory for — or even equivalent to — those actions, as if everything is political all the way down, and we can’t ever distinguish between good-faith government conduct and flagrant bad-faith abuses of power.
There’s no reason to capitulate in advance to that framing.