After spending three weeks plumbing the depths of a chaotic power vacuum, House Republicans seem to have finally found their man. And while the selection of Representative Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, as speaker offers immediate relief from an exhausting, internecine process, his elevation does little to address the underlying conflict that led to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s demise.
While far from a household name, even by congressional standards, Mr. Johnson is well situated to bridge a divided conference. As vice chairman of the G.O.P. conference he has been an elected member of leadership without being a part of its core; he is a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee and a Judiciary Committee ally of Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, but with a mild temperament that endears him to the establishment wing of the party. He has signaled an openness to the job, but resisted being caught up in the fray, thereby managing to avoid the sort of commitments that would limit his options.
Mr. Johnson is not your prototypical party leader, and his mere candidacy sent many in Washington scrambling for their Congressional Directory. And in some ways this was the point — a clean break from the Mr. McCarthy mold of speaker as pure political animal. But while his unassuming manner, ideological credentials with conservatives, and initial good will presents an opportunity to navigate what was always going to be a rocky end-of-year path, the same power dynamics that brought the last speaker to his knees remain on a collision course with the realities of divided government.
If this resolution seems anticlimactic in the wake of such a dramatic ouster and shambolic interregnum, it speaks to the capriciousness of the entire exercise — and why we could easily see the cycle begin anew.
So with that in mind, why on earth did they do this?
First and foremost, the last month was a display of power in and of itself for conservative hard-liners. Like Chekhov’s gun, the motion to vacate — a staple of the modern House that had only been notionally weaponized in the past decade — was eventually going to be triggered. The only question was whether Democrats would oblige in ousting Mr. McCarthy, and under the circumstances they did not hesitate. The chaos that was unleashed within the G.O.P. conference only served to validate that instinct.
Mr. McCarthy’s ouster came less than a year after the vaunted “power-sharing” arrangement he forged with conservative hard-liners in their January negotiations.
The deal had been cast in explicitly parliamentary terms, and styled as a coalition within the party itself, with conservatives wielding institutional power in previously unthinkable ways, as Mr. McCarthy handed over effective veto power over the floor via the Rules Committee. At its peak, with the coordination of the so-called “five families,” and buy-in from the likes of the Freedom Caucus and its outside allies, House Republicans were able to pass a party-line debt-limit package that forced the White House to the bargaining table, yielding a bipartisan agreement that averted default, achieved notable permitting reforms, and enacted budget caps for the duration of the Congress. But between the underwhelming experience of incremental success, and an apparent pre-emption of the government funding fight sought by the hard-liners, Mr. McCarthy’s unlikely victory marked the beginning of the end.
Within weeks, many of those same hard-line conservatives mounted a procedural blockade of government funding bills, forcing Mr. McCarthy to choose between the shutdown they sought to compel, and the bipartisan end-around that would lead to his removal as speaker. While Mr. McCarthy’s reliance on Democratic votes was cited as evidence of noncompliance with the January deal, the blockade and ensuing mutiny was a practical acknowledgment that what is achievable under the current balance of power in Washington had proven insufficient to hard-liners.
In the end, the inside influence they had sought for the past decade was less fulfilling than the outside clout that had secured that power.
The motion to vacate set up another win-win proposition for that rogue band of Republicans: putting Mr. McCarthy’s fate in the hands of Democrats who could either assist in the speaker’s removal, or taint him with their mercy. After the minority helped achieve what hard-liners couldn’t on their own, the process of selecting a new speaker offered a new forum for the insurgents to flex their might. Rather than falling in line behind the conference’s designated pick in the majority leader, Steve Scalise, a group of conservatives summarily killed his chances by pledging to oppose him on the floor in favor of his chief rival, Mr. Jordan.
In a body like the House where power derives from one’s ability to command a majority, it is hard to overstate what a profound breakdown this represents. If there is no baseline obligation to unify behind the team, the entire conceit of a functional political party falls apart. But the same rump that had used Democrats to take out Mr. McCarthy and threatened to do so again with Mr. Scalise suddenly appealed to this sense of unity to push Mr. Jordan.
The experience of seeing their top two leaders taken down in succession by a sliver of their colleagues radicalized the middle of the party against their own normative inclinations. Instead of allowing the hard right to dictate their pick, a symbiotic group of old bulls from safe seats and vulnerable Biden-district moderates refused to reward the treachery, taking down a second nominee against the nominal will of the majority.
As factional tit-for-tat consumed one would-be speaker after another, and offramps such as an elected pro tempore were quickly foreclosed, it became clear that the majority of Republicans either had to accommodate the party’s most intransigent voices or be faced with the unthinkable choice of turning to Democrats for help. If only by process of elimination, the outcome would be decided on the terms of the hard right, one for whom a betrayal narrative has its own utility.
Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida and McCarthy bête noire, confirmed as much this week on his podcast, Firebrand. “If we end up with a more conservative speaker, then we will have achieved the objective of upgrading the position … And if it’s not, you will know why.”
This implicit threat — that you have to either accommodate Mr. Gaetz and his allies, or fulfill their grievance narrative — was not lost on a weary conference looking to make peace, however fleeting. Enter Mr. Johnson, who is broadly acceptable to the conference, even as Democrats blanch at his statements and record.
Taking a cue from Mr. Gaetz, the hard-liners have decided to take the win, at least for the time being. There are early signs that Mr. Johnson may be treated with a level of political grace not afforded to other hopefuls. Asked about a potential stopgap spending measure, the House Freedom Caucus chairman, Scott Perry, acknowledged as much to CNN’s Manu Raju. “It’s a different situation now, there was a trust factor with leadership last time,” Mr. Perry said. “I think you’re going to see a different viewpoint now.”
To the extent Mr. Johnson does find himself quickly in hot water, he can simply blame McCarthy and promise better outcomes in next year’s fiscal negotiations. But the underlying dynamics remain the same, as does the balance of power. While a narrow House majority offers negotiating leverage at the margin, anything that can become law must go through a Democratic Senate and be signed by President Biden. No hard-line tactics or clever strategies can compensate for the fact that Republicans need to win more elections to implement their agenda.
Which is all to say the continuing functioning of government requires the same leadership behavior that felled Mr. McCarthy, and so long as the wing of the party that precipitated this month’s bedlam maintains de facto veto power over the speaker and his ability to bring legislation to the floor, the incentives remain the same.
High-stakes tests are rapidly approaching, with a deadline on government funding and decisions about Ukraine and Israel aid, among other supplemental requests. Whatever happens, it will take bipartisan cooperation. And so long as modest bipartisan outcomes are enough to paralyze the legislative branch for weeks at a time, stability remains at the mercy of nihilist whims.
Liam Donovan is a government relations strategist who previously worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He is also a host of The Lobby Shop podcast.
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