What does McCarthy’s speakership mean for the 118th Congress?
After a historic 15 ballots, Kevin McCarthy was elected speaker of the House for the 118th Congress. McCarthy needed multiple rounds of ballots to negotiate with various members within his conference who held out for rules changes, committee assignments and other promises in exchange for their votes. Many of the deals and concessions made by McCarthy could have important consequences for how the House of Representatives operates over the next two years.
One of the most discussed issues was lowering the threshold around the motion to vacate the chair. The new rules would allow a single member to initiate a vote to remove the speaker and would require a majority to pass. With such a narrow margin in the chamber, McCarthy would be removed if five Republicans joined all Democrats in voting in favor of the motion.
However, Democrats may be unlikely to go along with this, as McCarthy could be replaced with someone less agreeable to them. Republicans may also not want to engage in this practice, as there is not a consensus alternative, as evidenced by the recent speakership battle. Removing the speaker will also take time away from addressing substantive issues that members care about.
For these reasons, though it will be theoretically easier to remove the speaker, it is unlikely to be put into action any time soon. Even then, as with former Speaker John Boehner, the mere threat of the motion may be sufficient to alter McCarthy’s behavior or end his tenure.
McCarthy is also said to have committed to use “regular order,” in which the House will consider 12 individual appropriations bills (instead of a combined omnibus bill) and an open amendment process in addition to requiring 72 hours between a bill’s final text being presented and a vote being held on it. These measures are important, as they empower rank and file members when recent Congresses have been marked by power being highly concentrated within leadership. Instead of only being able to offer an up or down vote on a bill, members will be able to help craft legislation, which creates more buy-in from members outside of leadership and makes for better, more nuanced policy outcomes.
However, speakers of the past have made similar pledges to open up the process for all members, only to later renege on their promise and utilize a largely closed process. Some members may exploit the open amendment process to offer “poison pill” amendments, which ultimately jeopardize final passage of the underlying bill. With such a narrow majority, a handful of members could deny passage of must-pass funding bills. Were this to happen, McCarthy may be tempted to follow in the steps of his predecessors and exclude most members from the legislative process to increase the chances of a bill passing. But doing so may inspire those within his conference to capitalize on the new rules around vacating the chair.
McCarthy has also promised votes on particular bills. The first of which is a proposal for term limits for all members of the House. The House has voted on this issue before, even earning a majority. However, for term limits to be instituted, a constitutional amendment would have to be enacted, which requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate as well as the ratification of three-fourths of the states. For these reasons, it is unlikely to pass.
The second promised vote is on a border security bill. This issue has been highly contentious and likely will be a centerpiece of Republican campaigns in 2024. If this legislation passes the House, it may not pass the Senate, and, even if it did, it may not be signed into law by the president. However, this allows Republicans to stake out their positions on border security issues and forces Democrats to take opposing positions, which may not be popular in some states and districts. If the Senate and president do not support the border security bill, the House can continually vote on it, similar to the dozens of Affordable Care Act repeal votes held in the House under Boehner during the Obama administration.
Even if there is no substantive change on the issue, bringing this bill up for a vote could serve some Republicans well in their bids for reelection. However, it may be a double-edged sword for others in more competitive districts. If Republicans want to hold and expand their majority in 2024, they cannot force too many difficult votes on their most vulnerable members. So they may deploy this strategy sparingly.
Another set of agreements made by McCarthy to win the speakership include the creation of a subcommittee that intends to probe the “weaponization of the federal government” and returning to the Holman rule. The first is a relatively standard practice for new majorities in the House. New Congresses routinely set up new subcommittees or select committees. For example, Nancy Pelosi revived a subcommittee on voting rights to win over Marcia Fudge’s support for her second stint as speaker after the 2018 midterms. Republicans established a select committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi in 2014. These positions are often more useful for scoring political points as opposed to conducting meaningful oversight or making substantive policy change.
The same can be said about the return to the Holman rule. This would allow members to essentially defund specific workers and programs within the federal government. Though potentially useful for reducing spending in appropriations bills, this is a weapon more likely to be used for position-taking purposes to target specific actors or groups of actors that are unpopular with the majority.
McCarthy also promised to take a strong position on big spending cuts, including potential changes to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. The reduction in spending could amount to billions, which is unlikely to pass a Democratic-controlled Senate. However, some Republicans have suggested they will only agree to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for these cuts. The debates over spending and the debt ceiling are going to be highly contentious and could ultimately result in a partial government shutdown or the first instance of the United States defaulting on its debts.
To achieve the majority needed to become speaker, McCarthy negotiated deals with the more conservative members of his conference. Another option would have been to negotiate a deal with a small number of moderate Democrats. Though this was never explored and was never likely to transpire, it also means McCarthy cannot count on any Democratic support in the coming Congress. With such a narrow majority and an open amending process altering the complexion of bills, this could spell defeat for the Republicans on some key votes.
Overall, the best-case scenario around these changes is that rank and file members become empowered in a way that most have never experienced, the chamber becomes more deliberative and policy outcomes improve. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some members may abuse their newfound freedom, jeopardizing bills and leading McCarthy to renege on his promises, returning the House to the centralized, non-deliberative body it has been in recent years.Image credit: GoodIdeas