John Krull commentary: Bread, circuses and Victoria Spartz

U.S. Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Indiana, made a good point.

Her leader—Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy, R-California—has said he plans to prevent U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, from serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and block U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, and U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, from sitting on the House Intelligence Committee.

McCarthy’s stated reasons for stripping Omar, Schiff and Swalwell of their committee assignments are flimsy. He cites Omar’s controversial criticisms of Israel and unsubstantiated reports from a decade ago that Swalwell had been targeted for recruitment by a Chinese spy. Schiff, the speaker suggests, simply isn’t trustworthy.

In reality, the removals from committee assignments are either political payback or appeals to rank religious bigotry.

Schiff led the impeachment proceedings against former President Donald Trump. Swalwell also played a significant role in the impeachment fight.

McCarthy is indefatigable in his efforts to kiss Trump’s, uh, ring.

Omar is a Muslim—and taking shots at adherents to the Islamic faith plays well with the alt-right base that now is the core of the former president’s support.

All this makes the three Democratic House members convenient targets for political retribution—and McCarthy believes Republicans are entitled to retaliate.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, stripped U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, of their committee assignments.

The circumstances, though, were different.

Greene and Gosar either threatened another House member or made jokes about killing another House member—and then refused to apologize or express even minimal contrition.

Even so, House Republicans at the time—Spartz among them—protested that Pelosi’s decision was wrongheaded and set a dangerous precedent.

Now, though, many of those same Republicans are arguing that, by their lights, two wrongs in fact do make a right. They are all for equating threats of murder with taking provocative political stands.

Spartz will have none of it.

“As I spoke against it on the House floor two years ago, I will not support this charade again. Speaker McCarthy needs to stop ‘bread and circuses’ in Congress and start governing for a change,” Spartz said in a statement.

The reference to “bread and circuses” is a telling one.

It dates to the time of the Roman Empire. Roman emperors used bread and circuses to distract the public when they wanted to divert attention from imperial acts that were unpopular or to hide the fact that the emperor didn’t know what he was doing.

Thus far, that is an apt description of Kevin McCarthy’s leadership approach. Serious leaders seek high offices because they have significant goals they want to accomplish. Non-serious ones do so simply because they want to sit in a big chair.

McCarthy falls in the latter category.

Spartz is right to take him to task.

She has both pragmatic and principled reasons for doing so.

The pragmatic argument against McCarthy’s decision is that it is unlikely to bring the Republican Party any new votes.

Spartz can do something that McCarthy apparently cannot—basic math. She knows the GOP is a minority party and therefore needs to attract independent and undecided voters if it hopes to prevail in future elections.

Continuing to throw slabs of red meat to a dwindling alt-right constituency isn’t likely to convince suburban voters, for example, that Republicans consider their concerns a priority.

The principled reason revolves around hypocrisy.

If McCarthy and his amen corner say trustworthiness is a necessary requirement for service, then why are they refusing to discipline or even utter one word of criticism about newly elected U.S. Rep. George Santos, R-New York, who lies as often he breathes? Why, for that matter, do they continue to support and defend Trump, who’s peddled more whoppers than Burger King?

And if making statements—even antisemitic ones—is justification for punishing someone, then why did McCarthy reward Greene, who once blamed natural disasters on “Jewish space lasers,” with a plum spot on the Homeland Security Committee?

But the fact is that McCarthy isn’t motivated by either principle or any grander notion of political pragmatism. His focus is on appeasing the small minority of alt-right hardliners who seek to hold him, the House and the nation hostage.

That’s an unpleasant reality—one he doubtless wants people not to notice.

So, he offers a diversion.

Bread and circuses.

Victoria Spartz got that exactly right.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College.

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