Speaker Johnson: Speaker of the House but not of the Majority

Josh Huder | April 15, 2024

As Congress struggles to act on a myriad of challenges, much of the blame – rightly or wrongly – is being laid at Speaker Johnson’s feet. Currently, he stands in the way of foreign aid packages to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, an FAA reauthorization, the farm bill, and more. However, the scope of Johnson’s influence is also misperceived. His situation is unique in American history. Speaker Johnson is the constitutional leader of the House but he lacks the tools and political freedom to enable a majority to work its will. In other words, Johnson is the Speaker of the House but not of the majority party. As a result, he’s turned to crisis legislating as a means to balance the impossible demands of his right flank with his institutional responsibilities to govern.

The Speaker’s Powers in Historical Context:

To understand Speaker Johnson’s predicament, we need to understand the institutional and political context of his position. The speakership is a blend of institutional and partisan responsibilities. The position began as a parliamentary umpire. Early speakers recognized motions, enforced rules, judged points of order, and orchestrated routine parliamentary procedures of the chamber. Their role was more administrative than influential, which is one reason why Frederick Muhlenberg, the nation’s first Speaker, is not the most memorable politician to hold the job. However, the speakership evolved into a partisan position relatively early in American history. Notably, Henry Clay, among others, used the office as an agent of the majority to facilitate passage of important legislation. The speakership transitioned from merely an institutional umpire to a position of serious political importance.

The contemporary powers of the speakership reflect these dual roles. Their institutional privileges are rooted in House rules and accompanied by significant organizational privileges delegated to them by their majority party. As a result, the contemporary speakership is so influential it has few peers in American history.

The 118th Congress: The Speaker’s Latest Evolution:

That has not been the speakership on display this Congress. McCarthy and Johnson deserve some blame, but these situations are largely not their fault. Fractures within the Republican Party now extend beyond mere policy disputes. The GOP establishment and GOP right wing increasingly operate in distinct political environments, pursuing different and, at times, antithetical goals. That decoupling has dissolved the political glue binding Republicans together in the House. And with it, much of the power modern speakers are accustomed to has dissipated as well.

In particular, Speaker Johnson’s ability to influence the House agenda via majority vote has basically evaporated due to insufficient intraparty coordination. Partisan control of the House requires coordination between the Speaker, Rules Committee, and majority members: the Speaker negotiates a policy deal between members; the Rules Committee reports special rules bringing legislation to the floor for consideration under a set of procedures; and finally, a floor majority adopts the special rule to set up a debate and passage. Normally, this is all very pro forma.

However, in the 118th Congress this process has effectively collapsed. The Rules Committee, normally a close ally of the Speaker, has been a source of opposition for Johnson. The lack of special rules structuring deliberation on a number of high-profile bills, from the National Defense Authorization Act to every spending deal since October, indicate the three conservatives McCarthy seated on the panel have refused to cooperate with Johnson’s plans. Likewise, when they have reported out rules, conservative Republicans have repeatedly blocked them – a clear sign the GOP procedural majority Johnson needs to control the floor has effectively collapsed as well. For most legislation, the norms and practices facilitating partisan agenda control have broken for the GOP. And as a result, Johnson is essentially a Speaker without a majority.

The Tools Speaker Johnson Does Have:

This state of affairs has deeply weakened Johnson’s ability to lead, but that does not mean he’s irrelevant. Johnson inherited an institution that has accumulated immense authorities after more than two centuries of evolution. Speakers recognize (or refuse) motions, decide points of order, pause proceedings, delay votes, ignore motions they deem dilatory, recess the House, appoint select and conference committees, and more. Despite his hostile right flank, Johnson remains a powerful arbiter over what does and does not reach the House floor. This makes him an important institutional leader even if he lacks the influence of a true party leader.

Speaker Johnson’s Limitations:

But this perch has put Johnson in a precarious position. He has the final say in what the House does but far less influence over how it does it. For example, as Speaker, he is the steward of the majority’s partisan brand yet he does not represent a true House majority. He’s been unable to make progress on immigration legislation despite significant attention and demand from his conference. On the other hand, conservatives have reflexively opposed his efforts to avoid damaging shutdowns, authorization lapses, and other must-pass priorities before the House. This has forced Johnson to rely on Democratic votes to pass critical legislation. That is not new for the GOP: Speakers Boehner and Ryan also relied on Democratic votes to pass spending bills. But in the 118th policy has moved even further left due to the GOP’s organizational breakdown. Johnson has been forced to turn to a process called suspension of the rules, a process which the Speaker controls, as the only one who can recognize Members for suspension motions; Members cannot make such motions. This procedure requires a supermajority of two-thirds to pass, in order to finalize deals he’s negotiated.

Some have argued this has empowered Democrats but that’s not really true. From a policy perspective, Democrats have benefitted. But Democrats remain essentially powerless – so far – to break Johnson’s hold on the House agenda. Their inability to bring Ukraine aid to the floor is a perfect example of their limitations. There is no question they have been beneficiaries of Republicans’ dysfunction. But they can’t advance legislation or substantially affect the House agenda under the present circumstances.

Speaker Johnson is in a unique position. He faces all the pressures of a modern partisan political leader – jam the opposition, advance party goals, move policy toward the House’s position – but lacks the cooperation necessary to actually facilitate it. He remains the institutional leader of the lower chamber but without a working majority to lead. As a result, the House will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis until the majoritarian body once again has a working majority.

Josh Huder is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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