The Worst Job in Washington: Kevin McCarthy and the Challenge of the Speakership

GAI | August 1, 2023

By Matthew Green, Professor, Department of Politics (The Catholic University of America)

The past seven months have made it abundantly clear that the House speakership is one of the most difficult jobs in Washington. In January, for the first time in a century, the majority party’s nominee for speaker – Kevin McCarthy of California – failed to get an absolute majority of votes on the opening day of the new Congress. McCarthy was eventually elected speaker, but only after fifteen rounds of voting, and he has since labored to keep his tiny Republican majority unified, let alone get bills through a Democratic-led Senate and past President Joe Biden’s veto pen.

Even McCarthy’s legislative successes have come at a price. When he managed to negotiate a bipartisan debt limit increase with Biden and pass it with majorities of both parties, conservatives within the House Republican Conference were furious. Eleven of them decided to express their unhappiness in early June by voting against a rule for considering several GOP bills, which brought the House to a temporary halt and exposed the fragility of Speaker McCarthy’s authority.

Though McCarthy’s problems have been particularly severe, the speakership has been difficult for other recent speakers too. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) struggled to coexist with the House Freedom Caucus, the defiant bloc of conservatives that has given all Republican speakers trouble since it formed in 2015, as well the erratic and mercurial president Donald Trump. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had to campaign behind the scenes for weeks to get enough votes to be elected Speaker in 2019, and two years later she employed exhausting shuttle diplomacy between internal party factions in both chambers to pass Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill.

Why has the speakership been such a challenge in recent years? To answer that question, it is helpful to understand the four basic kinds of authority that a speaker exercises in Congress, and why that authority has become harder for them to wield.

Four Kinds of Party Authority

 The first type of authority that the speaker exercises in the House is organizational, meaning an ability to be selected by the House, stay in power, and determine the rules of her chamber. The second type is over the congressional agenda, sometimes referred to as procedural authority. The third type of authority is over policy, or which bills and amendments pass on the floor. Finally, speakers exercise electoral authority by helping preferred incumbents get reelected and ensuring that strong candidates from her party are running for office.

Speakers do not require absolute, cartel-like authority in all four dimensions, but they need at least some in order to govern effectively and represent the interests of their party. The first two, organizational and procedural, are especially important:  without them, the minority party could build a coalition with a subset of the majority party to select a speaker from within its own ranks, write the chamber’s rules in its favor, and bring only the bills it prefers to the floor.

From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, a period when Democrats were the majority party in the House, speakers expanded their organizational and procedural authority. Intraparty defections on the vote for speaker were virtually unheard of, and the Rules Committee (which approves the special rules that govern debate over each bill that comes to the floor) became an arm of the Speaker, who unilaterally appointed the committee’s supermajority of Democrats. Speakers and other majority party leaders also worked to strengthen their policy authority, pushing for the passage of more liberal legislation, and sought to bolster their electoral authority by expanding and professionalizing the party’s campaign arm.

The election of Newt Gingrich (R-GA) as speaker in 1995, leading the first GOP majority in the House in 40 years, augured a new era of powerful majority parties led by strong speakers. Gingrich ignored the norm of seniority in committee appointments by unilaterally assigning junior Republicans to powerful committees, shifted power from committees to party leaders (including the speakership), and helped push through a package of major conservative bills in the first 100 days of the new Congress, often crafted via speaker-appointed task forces. Relegated to minority status, Democrats were all but powerless to stop him.

But then, just as the authority of the speaker had reached new heights in the House, it started to fray.

The Weakening Authority of Speakers

Gingrich’s Republican majority included some newly elected, ideological true believers who were impatient to shift national policy in a more conservative direction, and Gingrich lacked the skills to temper their expectations and manage his party’s internal differences. His organizational and procedural authority began to show signs of erosion. Nine Republicans refused to vote for Gingrich for speaker in January 1997, eleven Republicans defeated a rule for considering committee funding in March of that year, and Gingrich was nearly ousted in an internal coup several months later.

Gingrich’s successor, Dennis Hastert (R-IL), was largely able to restore party unity on organizational and procedural votes. But in the meantime, a few minority party Democrats had begun opposing their party’s nominee for speaker, either voting present or for other candidates. After Democrats lost their majority in 2010, eighteen members of the party, blaming Nancy Pelosi for their “shellacking” at the polls, did not vote for Pelosi for speaker – the largest number of defectors on a speaker vote since the 1920s. Unanimous support for a party’s nominee for the speakership, which was once a given, could now no longer be assumed for either Democrats or Republicans. Indeed, every election for speaker since then has featured one or more defections in one or both parties.

While each assault on speaker authority was unique, all of them occurred because of three major changes in the political environment: (1) highly competitive congressional elections, which disincentivized the minority party to help the majority govern; (2) small House majorities, which reduced the number of same-party lawmakers available to support the speaker; and (3) the election of new members of Congress who viewed norms of party loyalty with skepticism. Put together, they made it increasingly hard for speakers to build and sustain the majorities they needed to exercise authority on behalf of their party and the chamber.

Though Pelosi and Hastert managed to navigate this environment successfully (albeit often with great effort), others were not so fortunate. Gingrich and another speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, resigned their speakerships, and Paul Ryan – who reluctantly ran to replace Boehner because no other serious candidate wanted the job – chose to retire after serving less than two terms in the position.

Is McCarthy a Powerless Speaker?

This brings us to McCarthy, for whom the political milieu was exceptionally challenging when he decided to run for speaker. His party had one of the smallest majorities of any governing party in the House in decades. The Freedom Caucus, numbering roughly forty Republicans, remained a potent source of rebellion. McCarthy was further hurt by the worse-than-expected election results for the GOP in 2022 and lingering doubts about his leadership abilities, dating back to his short-lived campaign to replace Boehner as speaker.

To end the January standoff that paralyzed the House and kept him from winning the speakership, McCarthy had to surrender even more of his authority. He agreed to restore the right of any one member to call for the removal of the speaker (the so-called “motion to vacate”), increasing the odds that the minority party would dethrone him by forming a coalition with a minority of the GOP, to the detriment of his organizational authority. He diminished his procedural authority by appointing two members of the rebellious Freedom Caucus, plus the notorious maverick lawmaker Thomas Massie (R-KY), to the Rules Committee. And he gave up some of his electoral authority by agreeing not to support primary candidates in open GOP districts.  Policy authority under divided government is more difficult, but his willingness to let hardliners imperil the typically bipartisan NDAA and to move away from agreements on appropriations spending does not look promising.

Even with these agreements in place, some conservatives in his party have remained restive. McCarthy temporarily lost his procedural authority to the eleven rebels who defeated the rule on the floor in June. (As one rebel, Matt Gaetz (R-FL), tweeted, “Now we Hold the Floor.”) Those rebels could well vote to defeat future rules, not to mention major “must-pass” bills like the annual appropriations bills, should Democrats decide not to support them.

However, there are some indications that McCarthy is figuring out how to minimize the internal divisions that would otherwise rob him of the majorities he needs to exercise authority. Following the lead of former speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA), he has employed the “politics of inclusion,” holding regular meetings with emissaries from the party’s internal factions and giving more power to notable GOP dissenters like Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene so they have a stake in legislative outcomes. Jordan in particular helped lobby Freedom Caucus conservatives to limit their opposition to the debt limit bill, helping it get over the finish line.

McCarthy has also used his procedural authority strategically, bringing bills to the floor that both mutinous conservatives and mainstream Republicans are willing to vote for. Though that means the House’s agenda has been loaded with position-taking measures that have no chance of becoming law, it creates the perception that McCarthy is in control and keeps would-be GOP rebels relatively happy. (It was no accident that the original debt limit bill passed by the House largely mirrored a plan proposed by the Freedom Caucus.)

As the loss of the rule vote in June revealed, these tactics do not guarantee success for McCarthy. Over the next eighteen months he will almost certainly have to work overtime to construct floor majorities to pass controversial rules and bills. Occasionally he may even have to turn to the minority party to help him maintain his authority (as he did to pass the special rule for considering the debt limit bill). But if he can do so, McCarthy may prove to be a model for how speakers – with a lot of work – can govern in today’s polarized, competitive, and rebellious era of congressional politics.

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