When the 118th Congress gathered on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on January 3rd, the first order of business for the House of Representatives was to elect a new speaker. This proved to be a spectacular process.
What is normally done in one vote on the very first day of the new Congress took three days and 15 votes.
It has been 163 years since it took that long to elect a speaker. It has been almost 100 years since the House needed more than one vote to elect its highest officer.
The delay was not just a ceremonial problem. It was a real problem: no member of the new Congress can be sworn in until there is a speaker in place. So long as the members are not sworn in, the legislative body cannot perform any of its duties, including making laws.
As the week dragged on and more votes were held, it became clear that the frontrunner candidate for the speakership, Kevin McCarthy, had not bothered to negotiate support among the incoming Congressmen. The Republican caucus in the House, which won a majority in November, consists of several factions, often with differences on policy issues that in Europe would merit joining different parties. Therefore, McCarthy should have begun negotiating a deal with all the party factions long before the first vote on January 3rd.
His failure to do so raises questions about his self-image. He knew he needed the 20 or so hardline conservatives in order to win the speakership. But his own conservative credentials are not exactly impressive: the Conservative Review, which publishes a ‘liberty score‘ of all members of Congress, gives McCarthy a 54% rating. Over at Govtrack.us, he is ranked “2nd most politically left” in comparison to Republicans generally in the House of Representatives.
The Conservative Political Action Committee, CPAC, is nicer to McCarthy: they give him a 74% score on their conservative scorecard. This may seem like an achievement, but there are at least 74 other members of Congress who score better than he does. Furthermore, McCarthy’s rating has declined since CPAC started tracking him in 2008.
In short, he should have known better than to go into the speaker votes without a done deal with the conservatives among his Republican caucus. His lack of planning ahead becomes even more perplexing given how vocal the conservatives in the House have been about McCarthy’s bid for the speakership. In an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News on January 6th, staunchly conservative Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz explained his reasons for opposing McCarthy:
We have zero trust in Kevin McCarthy, and there is just a large body of work to evaluate: his continuous voting for big spending bills, his support of amnesty [for illegal immigrants] in the past, his refusal to join us in trying to break up ‘big tech.’ This is someone whose compass is like a wet finger in the wind.
Conservative distrust of McCarthy is based in part on experience from last year’s Republican primaries. The factions within the Republican party fought fierce battles in multiple Congressional races over who should represent the party in the general election. Former president Donald Trump endorsed a number of conservative candidates while Kevin McCarthy’s political action committee (PAC), called “Take Back The House 2022,” spent almost $90 million to get moderate candidates elected.
This led to several clashes between the two factions. In some cases, the outcome was not what Republicans would have wanted. In the third Congressional district in Washington state, incumbent moderate Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler got $100,000 from McCarthy’s PAC but still lost the primary to Trump-endorsed Joe Kent. He, in turn, lost the general election to his Democrat opponent by about 1.5% of the total votes cast.
McCarthy and Trump also clashed over the 6th Congressional district in Michigan, where incumbent Fred Upton, with support from “Take Back The House 2022,” lost the primary to Whittney Williams. While Trump did not formally endorse Williams, several of his former campaign generals did. Williams lost the general election by a 2-to-1 margin.
Donald Trump was more successful in other Congressional races. Overall, 83% of the candidates he endorsed won. One of them was Harriet Hageman, who challenged incumbent Liz Cheney for the sole Congressional seat in Wyoming. Cheney, whose antipathy for Trump is well known, suffered a humiliating defeat in the Republican primary.
This race was an exception to the McCarthy vs. Trump rule in that McCarthy also endorsed Hageman. Generally, his campaigns against conservative candidates were so pronounced that conservative members of Congress forced McCarthy to promise that he would not campaign against them or their ideological peers in the 2024 election cycle.
That was not the only concession from McCarthy in order to win the House speakership. He had to make far-reaching compromises, changing some key rules on how the House is supposed to conduct its businesses. One of them concerns his own position: for the next two years, it will only take one member of the House to motion that the speaker be fired. This does not mean that the new speaker will be fired any time someone motions—it takes a majority vote in the House to do that—but it means that McCarthy will have to show a whole new level of respect for all Republicans under his leadership.
Conservatives also scored important victories on policy issues. Perhaps the most consequential one will be a hard-line approach to fiscal policy. In December, in his capacity as Republican minority leader in the outgoing Congress, McCarthy helped the Democrat majority pass a $1.7 trillion spending bill. It was heavily criticized by conservatives for being filled with “waste” and “woke garbage.”
McCarthy has earned a reputation for paying more attention to growing government spending than to reining in the ballooning federal debt. To change this, conservatives forced McCarthy to agree to a new course on fiscal policy: the new speaker will pursue spending cuts and adhere to a strict limit on the federal debt.
The latter is a matter of long-standing controversy in the U.S. Congress. The United States government has had a statutory debt limit in place since 1939, but its effect on restricting indebtedness has not exactly been impressive. Figure 1 reports the U.S. debt ratio, i.e., the debt of the federal government as a percent of U.S. gross domestic product, GDP. In the past 40 years, it has increased from 32.4% to 107.2%. The debt spiked due to extraordinary pandemic spending in 2020.
The green and red lines illustrate two forecasts for the debt ratio:
The debt ceiling has been ineffective simply because Congress raises it on an as-needed basis. At times, they have even suspended the debt limit, putting on full display their contempt for fiscal conservatism. This is why the official debt-limit forecast from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget—the green line—is entirely unrealistic. A much more plausible outlook—the red line—is that the debt-to-GDP ratio will continue to rise.
Conservatives in the House of Representatives are fully aware of the red-line outlook. They are genuinely worried about the government debt and the cost it inflicts on future generations. Therefore, they put a lot of effort into changing the way the House works with the debt ceiling. According to the agreement between the conservatives and Speaker McCarthy, the Republican majority is going to enforce the debt ceiling vigorously.
This includes risking a so-called ‘government shutdown’ to restrain spending. Statutorily, when Congress reaches its debt limit, it is not allowed to spend any more money. In theory, this means that the federal government has to stop paying its bills, including sending paychecks to its employees.
In practice, it does not work that way. Government functions that are deemed ‘essential’ continue to receive funding. Only non-essential functions are closed, leaving the astute taxpayer wondering why he is paying for non-essential government functions in the first place. That said, the topic of a government shutdown is like a political grenade with the pin taken out of it. There will certainly be a clash between the House and the Senate, where the Republican majority in the lower chamber will demand a balanced budget before raising the debt ceiling, and the upper chamber will refuse to accept one.
Historically, Republicans have been more than willing to cave to Democrat spending demands to avoid a government shutdown, which they always think will hurt them in the next election. That may change now: House conservatives are far less worried about the alleged electoral ramifications of a shutdown than the moderate wing of the party is.
Beyond fiscal policy, Kevin McCarthy has been forced to make several promises to the conservatives that will directly impact the overall policy agenda in the coming two years. He has accepted to place more conservatives on the House Rules Committee. Its power is often under-estimated, since it de facto controls the policy agenda for what bills are brought before the House for a vote, when those bills are brought, and on what terms.
This concession by McCarthy has already made a difference. According to the Daily Caller, the official House rules package, which the Republican majority voted for on Monday, January 9th,
includes a single member motion to vacate the chair as well as a requirement that tax increases receive 60% support before becoming law. The rules also require that legislation have only one subject, and give members 72 hours to read bills.
The one-subject rule can seem mystifying: isn’t it obvious that every bill a legislature votes on should be about just one thing? Yes, that should be obvious, but American politics is far from obvious. It is a long-standing tradition in both Congress and state legislatures to slip unrelated items into bills where they, from a subject-matter viewpoint, do not belong. Lawmakers can, e.g., be asked to vote for a bill that gives more money to public schools, with an amendment that doubles prison sentences for smoking marijuana.
Called ‘logrolling,’ this is often done by opponents of the main bill. If, e.g., some lawmakers do not believe that the state can afford to spend more money, they will slip the amendment about tougher sentences in there, if they believe that the proponents of more spending will find the amendment so objectionable that they will vote no on the entire bill.
Likewise, the practice can be used to ‘encourage’ supporters of the unrelated item—in this case, the tougher prison sentences—to vote for the spending they do not want. If they refuse, they can be accused of not actually being tough on crime.
Conservatives in Congress have often complained that logrolling is used by the Left, as well as by moderate Republicans, to overcome their resistance to radical policy measures. For the next two years, there will be no such multi-subject bills in the House.
At the end of the day, conservative Republicans accomplished a lot during the week of speakership voting. It remains to be seen if they can hold the line all the way to December 2024, and how their achievements affect the next Congressional election. Since no bill becomes law without passing the Senate and without being signed by the president, it looks like Washington is in for another two years of legislative inertia. In that respect, nothing has changed.
The news is that, unlike in the past, moderates and the Left will be resisting change while conservatives have the initiative. That alone is a respectable accomplishment.