Stephen Boyd’s weekly Capitol Hill briefing for Alabama’s business, financial, defense and government affairs executives.
For the past 100 years, the election of a new House Speaker has been little more than a ceremonial coronation of the acknowledged leader of the new majority party.
Not this time. Things got messy.
It took four days of nominating speeches, 15 rounds of tedious member-by-member voting, intense horse-trading in private conversations off the House floor as well as an occasional flash of anger on it before Rep. Kevin McCarthy—who with Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor formulated the original “Young Guns” that first brought their Republican colleagues back to power in 2011—completed a seven-year political journey to become Speaker of the House.
The prize? McCarthy now has the responsibility of managing a chamber that, because of the very concessions he made to get the job, may prove unmanageable.
Congratulations are in order… or, maybe, condolences.
Background: We knew this was coming. The basic problem for McCarthy was as simple as grade school math.
The 2022 midterm elections delivered Republicans a House majority, but only a slim one. With 222 Republicans and 212 Democrats, McCarthy had little room for error, and it was clear from the start that Democrats were not going to help. Instead, they unified behind their newly elected Democratic leader Hakeem Jefferies, the talented liberal lawyer from Brooklyn.
On the Republican side, 90 percent of the conference supported McCarthy as planned. This included each of Alabama’s Republican House members. But roughly 20 Republicans repeatedly voted for others, including Reps. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Byron Donalds (R-FL), and Jim Jordan (R-OH). McCarthy kept falling short.
Of the 20 Republicans holdouts, a group of 14 loosely led by Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) seemed most interested in changing the House rules to empower rank-and-file members, promote transparency, and set up budget clashes with the Senate and White House. The Roy camp threw their support behind McCarthy on the 12th ballot after he finally yielded to the group’s demands.
But the other six right-wing hardliners held out, criticizing McCarthy in increasingly personal terms. They drove the contest to 15 rounds before eventually voting “present,” changing the calculus and allowing McCarthy the needed majority without actually voting in his favor.
The Impact: The saga captivated the nation in ways that the inner-workings of Congress usually don’t. That was due, in part, to C-SPAN’s cameras—unencumbered by the usually restrictive rules governing filming in the chamber—documenting the personal interactions and human dynamics in Congress common to Capitol Hill insiders but foreign to much of the nation. Also, perhaps there is something quasi-Shakespearean about watching a man strive for that which he has always wanted but repeatedly fall just short, and publicly so, betrayed—at least for a time—by his own.
Either way, it’s over, and what happens next is more important.
Whipping votes in the House on a good day is like herding cats, and I’m always reminded of the advice I received from one senior member: “Only trust the people who tell you that they don’t like you. Take everything else with a grain of salt.” But the challenge that awaits McCarthy in this Congress is next level, and the events of the last week portend trouble in at least two ways.
First, the Speaker contest demonstrates how a small block of Republicans—especially those motivated by a political incentive structure that does not place value on its own leader’s success–can throw up serious roadblocks in a slim majority. Moving forward, the views of the dissenters must be taken into account in every decision.
Second, the amended Rules Package, which will memorialize the many concessions made, will set the course. The full text is not yet available, and establishment Republicans are already demanding to know more about what was given up in the Friday’s chaotic final hours. But, of the many provisions reportedly included, these would be the most consequential:
- The threshold to invoke the Motion to Vacate will be reduced to one. This change, sought by the Republican holdouts, would mean that any rank-and-file member can demand a vote of no confidence on the Speaker. Though a majority of the House would still be needed to approve that Motion, repeated votes of “no confidence’ would tend to inspire… a lack of confidence. This threat could be held over McCarthy’s head moving forward, just as it was used to expel then-Speaker John Boehner in 2015.
- Hardliner Republicans will be guaranteed additional seats on the House Rules Committee. The Rules Committee dictates which bills come to the House floor, how long they are debated, and how many amendments are in order—terms that have a significant impact on what passes and what doesn’t. Accordingly, the Rules committee is usually stacked with the Speaker’s allies so he or she can control the flow of legislation. Putting hardliners with no particular loyalty to the leadership on the Rules committee will weaken the Speaker’s control of the chamber.
- A pledge to freeze fiscal year 2024 discretionary spending at fiscal year 2022 levels. With the nation more than $31 trillion in debt, cutting discretionary spending will appeal to conservatives, but given inflation this policy would result in a net cut for the military just as the Pentagon’s concerns about Russian and Chinese aggression grow.
- The House will hold votes on key conservative priorities. These might include a vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment, strict border security provisions, and congressional term limits. The latter will be controversial within Republican ranks.
- The 12 regular appropriations bills will be moved separately. It’s difficult to overstate the degree to which the recent $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill, passed in December with loads of money for Alabama, has become a flashpoint in conservative circles. This rule change would essentially demand regular order, which hasn’t happened since Tom Brady was a backup quarterback in college. Allowing legislators more opportunities to legislate is a good thing, but it comes with a cost. For example, the consideration of the otherwise non-controversial 2016 spending bill for the Department of the Interior came to a halt when a member introduced an amendment to allow the display of confederate flags at national cemeteries. You never know what might come up. A strict requirement that spending bills be individually passed raises the prospect of a government shutdown.
- Any increases in the debt ceiling will be coupled with corresponding spending cuts. This proposal tracks the dollar-for-dollar “Boehner Rule” of 2011, which was part of the Budget Control Act that eventually led to deep sequestration cuts. Expect brinkmanship in the negotiations over raising the debt limit, which is expected sometime later this year.
- The House will create a Church Commission-styled committee to investigate the weaponization of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. In the 1975, Sen. Frank Church led a wide-ranging investigation of the nation’s intelligence agencies, finding that they had “undermined the constitutional rights of citizens . . . primarily because checks and balances designed by the framers of the Constitution to assure accountability have not been applied.” House Republicans would apply the same approach, likely focused on the FBI.
If enacted, these and other changes to the House rules will have consequences—known and unknown. They’ll play out most visibly on the major legislation that make up the gearworks of government: the budget, debt ceiling, annual spending bills, national defense bill, and the upcoming agricultural policy bill.
Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX), a McCarthy supporter, told CBS’s “Face the Nation’ yesterday that “The speaker vote is the easiest vote we’ll take in Congress and it was pretty chaotic. . . . The House of Representatives is a rough and rowdy place … this is only the beginning.” He’s right. In nearly every respect, the McCarthy-led House now seems on a tumultuous course, both internally and with the Biden Administration.
Stephen E. Boyd is a Partner at Horizons Global Solutions. Previously, he served as a Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, Chief of Staff for Alabama members in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and as a Communications Director of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He resides in the Washington, D.C. area. Opinions expressed herein are his own. This news report is not intended to influence or persuade. Email Stephen at [email protected].