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The Price of Power

Image via Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

In the 11th hour, in the face of staunch opposition, California Representative Kevin McCarthy managed to win his bid for Speaker of the House through a series of key concessions. It took some drastic measures—including a compromise that will make it easier for fellow Republicans to oust him—for a group of GOP holdouts dubbed the “Never Kevin” crew to be swayed. Finally, on January 7, 2023, McCarthy was able to clinch the victory, but at great personal and political cost. In the face of Republican disappointment over an underwhelming red wave and a deeply factious party, McCarthy’s struggles are indicative of the fraught political situation to come. Furthermore, the concessions necessary to sway holdouts may erode the power of the House Speaker and fundamentally alter how the chamber runs until the next election. 

The Speaker of the House is one of the most important roles in Washington. The Speaker serves as the presiding officer of the House of Representatives, and as such, holds a vital role in the US legislature at large. Although it is not a constitutional requirement, the Speaker is traditionally a sitting member of the majority party. Their main responsibility is to lead and manage the proceedings of the House, including setting the legislative agenda, determining which bills are brought to the floor, and presiding over floor debates. Additionally, the Speaker serves as a spokesperson for the House and represents the institution in negotiations with the Senate and the executive branch. Through practical administrative tasks, the role has immense power to help or hinder a president’s agenda; a Speaker can quash opposition and lead the charge on their party’s legislative agenda through close work with committee chairs and party leaders. Ultimately, this role thus not only shapes the direction and priorities of the House of Representatives, but also helps determine the functioning of the US government as a whole.

In the chaos of McCarthy’s struggle to the speakership, the “Never Kevin” faction emerged. The group, consisting mostly of representatives from solidly Republican districts, were nearly all endorsed by former President Trump, and are members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. The caucus was formed in 2015, and its stated purpose is to promote a limited government, fiscal responsibility, and individual liberty. The group has been known for its willingness to challenge Republican leadership and has been a driving force behind some of the more contentious political battles in Congress, such as the national ban on abortion

In what many critics have called a deal with the devil, McCarthy took drastic actions to help secure the votes of holdouts. In response to fears that he was not sufficiently committed to conservative values, McCarthy agreed to appoint members of the Freedom Caucus to important committees like the Committee on Rules. In addition to being a vehicle for the Speaker to control debates and advance bills, the committee can rewrite bills with the approval of the House after they have been voted on by other committees, and can determine which amendments will be allowed when the bills come up on the floor. Further compromising his position, McCarthy agreed to reinstate the “motion to vacate the chair” rule, which reduced the number of representatives needed to call for a vote to oust him from half of House Republicans to just one. This drastic change means that McCarthy will have to tread carefully lest he upset any of his detractors. Furthermore, as part of McCarthy’s negotiations with Freedom Caucus members, any member can now raise a point of order to block a bill and there will be a vote on congressional term limits–a priority of the party’s right wing. 

The rising power of extreme Republicans is especially concerning given that Congress must pass a dozen spending bills to ensure full funding of the government and increase the statutory borrowing limit.This increase, in turn, enables the Treasury Department to finance the federal debt, which is the total amount of money owed by the US government to its creditors, including both public and foreign entities. If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, the government risks shutting down and reaching its first-ever debt default, producing major fiscal challenges and negatively impacting the overall economy.

Not all Republicans are threatening a shutdown–some are open to partnering with Democrats to vote for spending bills and raise the debt ceiling. For example, Representatives Tom Cole and Brian Fitzpatrick have recognized the need to negotiate with Democrats. They are willing to work towards bipartisan deals that can pass through the Senate and be signed by President Biden. However, passing the necessary spending bills to prevent a crisis was already challenging with a slim Republican majority and an intransigent right-wing faction looking to cut spending and debt. And unfortunately, McCarthy’s concessions have made these tasks even more difficult, and potentially impossible. 

Dissidents have won the commitment to open spending bills to unlimited amendments, making it harder to pass any appropriations measures. Additionally, Republicans have demanded deep spending cuts—including to Social Security and Medicare—as a condition for raising the borrowing cap despite the fact that Democrats have adamantly rejected such proposals. Moreover, Republican Speakers’ traditional adherence to the Hastert rule makes a compromise especially challenging.The rule stipulates that legislation without the support of the majority of the majority—in this case, the majority of House Republicans—cannot be presented on the floor. Consequently, it is difficult to achieve meaningful change because if a bill on critical reforms makes it to the floor, the majority of Republicans need to collaborate with the Democrats for legislation to pass. 

Finally, McCarthy’s reinstatement of the motion severely limits McCarthy’s ability to operate politically. With the perpetual possibility of being ousted, it becomes more difficult for him to exert the pressure needed to sway the necessary number of Republicans or to ignore the Hastert rule altogether. Before former Speaker Nancy Pelosi eliminated the motion, an earlier iteration of the House Freedom Caucus in 2015 employed the method to pressure former Speaker John Boehner into resigning under threat of removal. This was also a looming threat for Paul Ryan, who took over as the next Speaker. 

It is hard to believe that the dysfunction of McCarthy’s election will be an isolated incident. The staunch opposition that emerged, coupled with the concessions necessary to win over this opposition (who comprised less than 10 percent of all House Republicans), may give detractors the power they need to undermine potential political maneuvers. For McCarthy, governing may be just as difficult as his campaign for Speaker. Staunch conservatives are now in a unique position to shape legislation in their favor, with McCarthy having little recourse to stop them.