Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Story Time With Kevin McCarthy

When you have the “magic minute,” the vaudeville hook never comes.
by Jim Swift
November 19, 2021
Story Time With Kevin McCarthy
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 19: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is seen on a monitor in the Rayburn subway as he spoke at length on the House floor to delay the Build Back Better Act vote on Friday, November 19, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Last night, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did something that’s quite rare on the House side: He gave a very, very long speech.

While it may have seemed like a filibuster, it wasn’t. What McCarthy did was abuse the so-called “magic minute,” a provision that allows party leadership to speak for as long as they’d like and have it only count as a single minute of debate time. (The House passes rules limiting the time of debate on bills, and these time limits vary from bill to bill.)

Most talking filibusters fail. The tactic is less common in the House, but what McCarthy was trying to achieve was twofold: First, he was trying to push Democrats into voting on the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better legislation really late in the night. This would have helped him and the GOP messaging arm claim that Democrats pushed through a costly, very long bill—one that almost nobody has read in its entirety—“in the dead of night.” (Never mind that most members do not read every word of bills anyway—that’s what staff is for.) Second, McCarthy was daring Nancy Pelosi to gavel him down and end his magic minute, thus letting Republicans say that Democrats “shut down debate” on BBB.

So no, there was no substantive reason for McCarthy’s speech. It was, per the norms of the Republican party, theatrics masquerading as governing.

Even so, McCarthy failed on both attempts at theatrics. Democrats largely left the chamber, telling reporters that McCarthy could talk as long as he likes and that they would vote on the bill Friday morning.

Nothing changes except that Kevin McCarthy wasted some more taxpayer time.

But maybe some good was accomplished anyway, in that the speech taught us a little bit more about the man who would be speaker.

Republicans staged a cast of several members behind McCarthy during his speech, with some tag-teaming in and out as it wore on. They would chuckle when it was clear McCarthy was joking, like an animatronic laugh-track or a coterie of junior employees trying to flatter the boss into believing that he’s a wit. This was awkward because unlike his predecessor, John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy is not a funny man. If Boehner was Rodney Dangerfield, then McCarthy is Tommy Wiseau. Funny, yes, but in unintentional ways.

By the time I tuned in, McCarthy had already been going for a few hours and the first story I heard him tell was about Teslas. We learned that he is friends with Elon Musk, which is good for him, I guess? Maybe he’ll become the first House speaker to ride a Falcon Heavy. Although he also said that despite earning $193,400 a year, he cannot afford a Tesla. He even said that it costs money just to test drive a Tesla. This claim appears not to be true, but even if it did, one assumes that McCarthy could always bang around in one of his pal Elon’s Model S’s if he really wanted to.

As he rambled, McCarthy shared the tidbit that he became a Republican in sixth grade after Jimmy Carter told America to wear sweaters. He talked about the artwork he keeps in his office, including a copy of Washington Crossing the Delaware and a lithograph of Abraham Lincoln. He then made a digression speculating on what would have happened in America had Lincoln not been assassinated. McCarthy also said that he would “love to debate Jim Crow one day.” On this point, it was unclear whether McCarthy thought Jim Crow was a person, or that he was eager to have a debate about Jim Crow laws in the year 2021 from the well of the House.

Or maybe it was just a verbal slip, as when he began to question whether or not the Chinese “would buy our bongs.” Not a typo.

Other McCarthy moments were equally unintelligible.

What to make of this speech? Dave Weigel thinks it’s win-win-win for America.

And I suppose that’s about right. The Build Back Better legislation passed early on Friday in a 220-213 party-line vote.

In a way, McCarthy’s stunt felt charming, like a return to the slightly nutty politics of the Before Times, when Congress was full of shady characters and everyone was on the take in one way or another—but at least it was honest graft.

I suspect that, left to his own devices, McCarthy would rather have been speaker in those Before Times, when he could have slapped backs and made awkward jokes and never have much more weighing on him than mohair and ethanol subsidies.

But those days are behind us and Kevin McCarthy has already shown that while he, personally, may not be hoping for the fall of democracy, he’ll go along with it if he has to.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.