by David Silverberg
It is extraordinary that a congressional impasse that could bring the world’s richest and most powerful government to a halt has featured a personal fight between three Florida men—one of whom represents Southwest Florida.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.) has become the face of intransigent, anti-government, pro-Trump fanaticism in the US House of Representatives.
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), ordinarily a vociferous Make America Great Again (MAGA) Trumper, was the face of willingness to compromise within the House Republican caucus and is now under attack for a supposed lack of extremist zeal.
And former President Donald Trump is playing the role of inciter and agitator, urging a government shutdown in the hopes it will defund federal prosecutors seeking to bring him to justice.
Like the three witches in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, these three Florida men have been fighting over the ingredients in their cauldron. Each has his reason for cooking the toxic brew, each has an idea of what should be in it, and none care that its contents just may poison the United States of America.
What has happened
Every federal fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1, Congress must approve and the President must sign 12 appropriations bills to fund the government for the next fiscal year.
Congress rarely makes its deadline. Instead, it often consolidates all the bills into a giant spending measure called a “continuing resolution” (CR) that funds the government at existing levels for a limited amount of time while all the details are worked out and the bills are actually passed.
Critics on both sides of the aisle have often complained that CRs are too complex, cumbersome and hasty for responsible budgeting. However, they do provide a mechanism to keep the government going, which is usually the main priority of all concerned. When neither bills nor CRs have been passed the government shuts down until a funding measure is approved.
This year most of the opposition to all government spending has come from the “Freedom” Caucus in the House of Representatives, an extreme, Trumpist, conservative group of roughly 45 invitation-only members who agree as a condition of membership to vote as a block. (Current Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was one of nine founding members when he served in Congress in 2015 and Southwest Florida Reps. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) and Donalds are current members.)
In January, in order to be elected Speaker of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-20-Calif.) made a number of concessions to the Caucus, some public, some still secret. Some of these were agreements to change the rules of the House to inhibit tax raises and benefits and make it easier to vote out the Speaker with a “motion to vacate;” a snap election.
Others concerned spending, like a promise to vote on a 10-year balanced budget plan and to balance a rise in the national debt ceiling with cuts to the budget, especially in social safety net programs.
When President Joe Biden and McCarthy reached a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling in May, Caucus members were furious, arguing that because the deal didn’t have the drastic spending cuts they wanted, McCarthy had violated the terms of their agreement.
Donalds emphatically rejected that deal. Before the vote he tweeted: “After I heard about the debt ceiling deal, I was a NO. After reading the debt ceiling deal, I am absolutely NO!!” At a Caucus press conference he elaborated: “Washington is doing it again. While you were celebrating Memorial Day, [The Swamp] was cutting another crap deal, more debt with no real changes whatsoever.”
Nonetheless, the deal passed the House by a resounding vote of 314 to 117, with 149 Republicans voting for it.
The experience of the debt deal and vote hardened Caucus opposition to a CR. In keeping with longstanding conservative priorities Caucus members sought “clean” appropriations bills that funded each individual federal department rather than what are known as “omnibus” bills that lump many measures together.
When Congress reconvened after Labor Day, and the countdown to a government shutdown began to get tighter, McCarthy called together Republicans of all ideological persuasions to formulate a common position.
Donalds was appointed a Caucus negotiator with McCarthy, a highly delicate and dangerous position.
On Sunday night, Sept. 17, McCarthy and the Republicans came up with a proposal among themselves for a 30-day CR to keep the government going. Donalds was a signatory.
“The 30 day CR does 2 things,” Donalds announced on X (formerly Twitter) the next day. “1. Secure the southern border. 2. Cut government spending by 8%. **There is NO Ukraine $$$** The truth is Congress needs more time to do the necessary spending cuts and reforms to stop the weaponization of our government and save our country.”
The response from fellow congressional extremists was immediate and ferocious.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.) argued that the CR funded Ukraine. (Caucus conservatives want to cut off Ukraine funding, which would aid Russia’s invasion.)
“Your CR funds Section C and Section K of Public Law 117-328,” Greene argued on X. “Here’s what the law says. It funds Ukraine in multiple sections, including 2 funds with no specified dollar amount that leaves the spending up to Biden. Billions more could end up being sent to Ukraine with your CR!”
“Actually, you are wrong,” Donalds replied. “The provision is to train our troops, so they can train our allies. It’s been in law since 2013. It was in the [National Defense Authorization Act], which you VOTED FOR this year.”
But Greene’s complaints were as nothing compared to the outrage and fury of Rep. Matt Gaetz, the primary leader of the shutdown movement.
First Gaetz reacted on X: “The problem with the Donalds CR is that it gets the job done for Jack Smith!” stated Gaetz, referring to Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is prosecuting former President Donald Trump.
“Matt, tell the people the truth,” responded Donalds. “The [Department of Justice] will operate whether the government is shut down or not. Special Counsel’s [sic] have always exempted themselves from shutdowns. What’s your plan to get the votes to defund Jack Smith? You’ll need more than tweets and hot takes!!”
Gaetz was hardly deterred. He took to the floor of the House that day to give an impassioned one-minute speech (called a “special order”) to the empty chamber to denounce Donalds. For a full understanding of the situation, it merits quotation in full:
“Mr. Speaker, “I’m not voting for a continuing resolution offered by my friend and colleague from Florida, I’m not voting to continue the failure and the waste and the corruption and the election interference and in some cases, the efforts that could lead this country into World War III. “I oppose the CR offered by friend and colleague from Florida, Byron Donalds. The Donalds CR continues the Ukraine policy negotiated by Speaker Pelosi and Mitch McConnell in the omnibus that conservatives were against! “The Donalds CR is a permission slip for Jack Smith to continue his election interference as they are trying to gag the President…the former President of the United States, the leading contender for the Republican nomination and the Donalds CR abandons the principle that it is only a review of a single subject spending bills that will save this country and allow us to tweeze through these programs and force these agencies to stand up and defend their budget. “My friends, we are approaching the days when we are facing 2-trillion dollar annual deficits atop a 33-trillion dollar debt. This is unsustainable and just to continue things with some facial 8-percent cut over 30 days that will lead to no programmatic reform is an insult to the principles we fought for in January. “I yield back.”
In the end, it was all moot. Speaker McCarthy could not get the House to agree on the procedures for a vote on the compromise CR (called a “rule”) and so the CR could not proceed. It was widely seen as a defeat for McCarthy and any compromise.
And then, in the midst of all this, Donald Trump threw in his eye of newt. On Wednesday, Sept. 20, he posted on his Truth Social media platform: “A very important deadline is approaching at the end of the month. Republicans in Congress can and must defund all aspects of Crooked Joe Biden’s weaponized Government that refuses to close the Border, and treats half the Country as Enemies of the State,” he wrote. “This is also the last chance to defund these political prosecutions against me and other Patriots.”
This now set the doctrinal line for Trumpist loyalty both in Congress and in the heartland.
As this is written, there is no agreement and the country is barreling toward a government shutdown, starting at 12:01 am on Sunday, Oct. 1.
Analysis: Byron on the brink
The battle over funding the government is now largely in the hands of Biden, McCarthy and both the Democratic and Republican leadership in the Senate, with Gaetz playing the role of spoiler.
Like a boat tossed onshore following Hurricane Ian, Donalds is left in an awkward—if interesting—position, teetering on dry land.
He’s promoted himself as a staunch Trumper but by agreeing to a semi-reasonable compromise he violated the positions of both his idol and of what might best be described as the Crazy Caucus.
His stepping out of lockstep with the most extreme members of the Caucus has taken a toll. The early reactions could be seen in some of the anonymous comments on X after Gaetz gave his speech.
“I’m so disappointed in Byron Donalds. I had high hopes for him,” commented CTLakeside14.
“Very very disappointing, they got to him,” wrote MichelleRM68.
And those were some of the ones that can be repeated.
Donalds has tried to come back into MAGA grace with even more vehement denunciations of Biden, fulminations over the border situation and calls for the president’s impeachment.
On Sept. 19, as the reaction was mounting to his endorsement of the CR, Donalds announced in a fundraising email that he had launched something called The MAGA Victory Fund.
“With President Trump now the indisputable frontrunner to win back the White House, I figured this was the perfect time to launch a new fund dedicated to helping MAGA Republicans win big in 2024 – from the White House all the way to the bottom of the ticket,” the email stated. “By making a contribution to my MAGA Victory Fund today, you’ll support both President Trump and my campaign as we work together to Make America Great Again!”
The Fund seems designed to do two things: Get Donalds back into MAGA world’s good graces and, if it collects any money, buy favor with disgruntled incumbents and upcoming candidates—in addition to showing his loyalty to Trump and raising money for himself.
However, the danger of allying and identifying with an extreme movement is that there’s always someone more extreme at the fringe defining the orthodoxy and Donalds has veered from the true faith.
And Trump remains a wild card, having endorsed a shutdown but not having commented on Donalds. If Trump condemns him, Donalds’ career as a right-wing ideologue may be over.
There may be another factor in the Gaetz-Donalds conflict.
DeSantis is term-limited and if he doesn’t win the presidency he can’t run for another term in 2026. Both Gaetz and Donalds have been mentioned as possible Republican gubernatorial candidates. The current maneuvering may be the early skirmish in the battle for the Governor’s Mansion three years hence, with both politicians trying to win the favor of the MAGA base.
Interestingly, though, support for compromise came from an unexpected source.
“The Freedom Caucus has rules. Some are unwritten, but most exist in writing. I know because I wrote them,” stated Mick Mulvaney. He served as Trump’s acting chief of staff in 2019 and 2020. Before that he served as a representative from South Carolina from 2011 to 2017 during which he was a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus.
In an essay titled “The House Freedom Caucus has apparently changed its rules” in the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill, Mulvaney argued that Caucus principles never precluded compromise on CRs. In fact, Caucus founders always believed in working with moderates.
“The truth seems to be the never-CR-never-Kevin-burn-the-place-down effort isn’t really coming from an organized group at all,” he observed. “Someone this week called it a collection of ‘caucuses of one.’ Some seem to be using the effort to raise their public profiles on Fox News and social media; others are looking to leverage the newfound attention to run for higher office.”
Hmmm. Who could that be?
Whether it’s a matter of personal ego or ambition, or mere maneuvering for personal advantage, the country faces what could be a crippling government shutdown. What is more, it comes amidst a painful recovery from a summer of natural disasters, a proxy foreign war that must be won and the relentless prosecution of an increasingly obvious criminal former president.
It’s quite a witches’ brew. “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” as the witches said in Shakespeare’s play.
Macbeth was a story of a fiercely ambitious nobleman who sought to be king—and whose crimes in pursuit of that ambition brought him to a bad end. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that now for those Florida Men who would destroy the country in their own pursuits of the crown, or the presidency, or the speakership, or the governorship—or just power for its own sake.
Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published on September 27, 2023.