·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Featured Article

Kevin McCarthy and the Sword of Damocles

— April 24, 2023

With a debt default looming, does Speaker McCarthy regret handing so much power to GOP extremists in his desperate fight to lead the House?

Does House Speaker Kevin McCarthy know about the Sword of Damocles?

It’s an old legend retold by Cicero in 45 BC, and the story goes like this. Dionysius of Syracuse ruled the Greek colony of Sicily in a manner both cruel and savage, conquering land and people, all while accumulating wealth that he couldn’t truly enjoy. He was so paranoid that he went to great lengths to avoid assassins, building a moat around his sleeping chamber and allowing only his daughters to shave his face.

One day, a boot-kisser named Damocles flattered the tyrant a bit too much, saying how wonderful, how easy it must be, to be the king. Wanting to teach this clueless sycophant a lesson, Dionysus offered Damocles the opportunity to trade places for a day. Damocles, of course, jumped at the chance, and before long, he was sitting on the ruler’s golden throne, wearing luxurious garments, surrounded by gorgeous and deferential servants who brought him delicious foods, the finest wines, and who massaged him with rich oils and played beautiful music for him.

Dionysus also arranged to have a glinty, sharp sword suspended above the throne, point aimed straight downward at Damocles, hanging by the thin strand of a single horse-tail hair. Damocles was living large, enjoying the sumptuous experience of kinghood, when he glanced up and noticed the sword. Once seen, it couldn’t be un-seen, and Damocles no longer enjoyed being the alpha male of Sicily with such impending doom bearing down upon him. According to Cicero, that was the price of kingship, the persistent fear of death that prevented real happiness.

It’s hard to forget how desperately Kevin McCarthy worked to be the king of the House.

It took McCarthy 15 rounds of voting last January before finally, painfully, winning election to Speaker. On the way, he kissed every boot of the most extreme members of the GOP’s caucus, promising to place them in key committees and advance their every legislative whim. In doing so, he made himself beholden to the likes of Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie “Jewish space laser” Taylor Greene. He made significant concessions, including making it easier for any member of the House to oust the Speaker through a motion that would override any other business at hand and force a vote to the floor where a majority could send him packing.

Uneasy should rest the head of a Speaker who has surrendered so much control to those who, not too long ago, certainly appeared to support an insurrection against the United States of America.

Common wisdom states that those who badly want power shouldn’t be allowed to wield it. Yet, there’s also the model of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the good Roman farmer who reluctantly left the plow to lead his country to victory against their enemies the Aequians. Fifteen days after becoming dictator, he resigned, went back to his farm, and became the model of reluctant leadership who would one day be compared favorably to George Washington as one who pursues public service instead of personal gain.

A young man, attended by servants and dressed in finery, reclines on a throne with a sword dangling above his head.
The Sword of Damocles, 1812 painting by Richard Westall (1765-1836). Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

With the fully fabricated debt ceiling crisis looming, McCarthy has to decide which is more important: the country’s well-being, or the Speakership he craved so desperately.

If the debt ceiling is not raised, enabling the government to borrow money to cover expenditures it is already obligated by law to meet, much of which rolled over from President Trump’s time in office, then the U.S. would default on its debt. (The debt ceiling has been raised over 100 times, thrice under the previous administration.)

Moody’s Analytics, a financial intelligence firm, developed three possible scenarios for a debt ceiling showdown. A short-duration default would trigger a mild recession that costs a million Americans their jobs. A long default would result in a worse downturn, with seven million Americans losing their jobs and a $10 trillion loss in household wealth as the stock market drops by 20%. Finally, if a Republican budget is passed with all the spending cuts they’re demanding as ransom to raise the debt ceiling, the resulting recession will cost 2.6 million jobs, and an unemployment rate of 6%, a result even worse than the short default scenario. None of this helps the American working class, but economic downturns often have a way of helping the rich get richer as they buy up distressed assets on the cheap.

Hammering out a budget and a debt ceiling compromise that both President Biden and the extremist wing of the GOP would find acceptable has proven a lengthy and, so far, impossible undertaking. The Biden Administration released their proposed 2024 budget in early March, with the President indicating an eager willingness to negotiate details with the Republicans, once they submitted a proposal of their own to start from. McCarthy finally released the GOP’s proposal last week, a budget plan which would seek a 22% cut to non-defense spending.

In particular, it would severely cut resources available to veterans, putting them at greater risk of poor health outcomes and homelessness, while also reducing disability benefits for wounded vets. It would also cancel any potential student loan forgiveness, cut Meals on Wheels service to over a million senior citizens, and push 1.7 million women, infants, and children closer to malnutrition via cuts in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program. 630,000 poor families would lose housing assistance. There would be even fewer rail inspections, a particularly egregious development after the Norfolk Southern derailment that poisoned deep red Palestine, Ohio recently. The debt limit agreement would also benefit the oil and gas industry at the expense of wind and solar, claw back unspent pandemic funds, place more stringent work requirements on Medicaid and food assistance recipients, and roll back IRS funding that would have increased revenue by auditing the wealthy to catch tax cheats.

Rather than cutting programs that benefit the poor and working class, Biden’s proposed budget would make up the shortfall by increasing taxes paid by corporations and the wealthiest Americans – the ones who more often benefit from the economic chaos that a debt default or a Republican budget would cause.

Is Speaker McCarthy a Damocles or a Cincinnatus? At this point, he should simply be glad that the life of the Year King is no longer the mandated sacrifice for the cleansing and regeneration of a country in decline.

Related: Rescue America from Rick Scott


The Sword of Damocles: Why Great Power Comes with Great Danger
Kevin McCarthy is elected House speaker after 15 votes and days of negotiations
Did Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene Blame A ‘Space Laser’ For Wildfires? Here’s The Response
How a speaker of the House can be ousted with a ‘motion to vacate’
Letters from an American: April 17, 2023
Letters from an American: April 19, 2023
McCarthy at risk of falling short on GOP votes for debt ceiling bill
Cheat sheet: What’s in Republicans’ sweeping 320-page debt limit proposal
WH analysis of GOP deficit plan: job losses, poorer kids
Nick Knudsen on Twitter
Let’s talk about 3 debt ceiling scenarios….
Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal year 2024
Eliseo Ferrer / The «Sacrifice of the Sacred King». Myth, ritual and meaning.

Join the conversation!