Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero related the story of the Sword of Damocles in his 45 BC book Tusculan Disputations. He described the eponymous court flatterer who wondered why his sire, King Dionysius II, could not enjoy the trappings of wealth and power. In response, the king provided the young man with all he could desire, but for a sharp sword suspended by a single horsehair above him. The wine became sour and the fruits bitter as the protagonist realized that, despite the luxuries of office, he could not enjoy them with such a threat hanging over his head. Now that the House of Representatives has voted to pass Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) rules package, the new Speaker of the House may just understand the unfortunate Damocles a little better.
House Rules or Restraints?
The long battle to gain the speaker’s gavel was a costly endeavor for McCarthy. With concessions galore, he traded away the security of his role by reinstating the “motion to vacate,” essentially allowing any single member to propose a vote of no confidence. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi notably changed this rule when she took up the mantle, making it so only a majority of the governing party’s members could call for this motion. “There can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions,” as Cicero put it. And McCarthy has certainly bought himself some sleepless nights.
The concessions he made to the House Freedom Caucus to become speaker are seen by many on the political right as a net positive to the nation. The rules package allows for a more aggressive investigation of COVID-19 origins and potential border malfeasance by the administration, among others. They also make it significantly more challenging to increase federal spending, an issue that prompted Democrats to declare that the GOP was putting women and people of color in danger – again.
Rather than being a “ransom note” to America, Liberty Nation’s Editor-in-Chief Leesa K Donner argued that:
“Despite the ridicule from Democrats and others on the left who call the Freedom Caucus a bunch of crazies, these hard-fought compromises by which the new speaker must abide, are more than worth the time it took to vote in 15 ballots. If this is crazy, these lawmakers might just be crazy like a fox.”
Other rules adopted include a 72-hour waiting period between when a bill is introduced and when it can be voted upon, a cap on government spending at 2022 levels, and creating a committee to investigate the Justice Department.
An Imminent Destruction?
President John F. Kennedy brought the idea of a Damoclean sword to the modern political world in 1961 when he warned of nuclear destruction. “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness,” he said to the United Nations.
The accidents, miscalculation, and madness that so concerned JFK were political missteps, and for him, they were a herald of national destruction. For McCarthy, whatever pitfalls occur in the lower chamber are a more personal destruction. He endured 15 rounds of voting to secure the spot and made concessions that contained the potential seeds of his own end. And like Damocles, the fruits and rewards of his new status may leave a very bitter taste.
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