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McCarthy’s Speakership and The Conservative Revolt: Behind the Deal For The Gavel

Ilan Hulkower

Drama unfolded in the House of Representatives when they convened to nominate and elect a Speaker. For the first time in one hundred years, the House failed to elect a Speaker on the first ballot. Through the numerous casting of ballots, the Republican opposition to Kevin McCarthy revealed itself to consist of 21 members. This coalition finally unraveled over a period of 4 days from January 3rd to 7th with enough defectors and persons voting present to allow Kevin McCarthy to become the next Speaker of the House on the 15th ballot . (The historic high mark for number of ballots to elect a Speaker is 133 ballots in 1855.) This peeling off of the Republican opposition, which came from members of the House Freedom Caucus, happened due to a deal between McCarthy and his detractors. The staunch opposition from within the GOP towards Kevin McCarthy candidacy for Speaker prompts the question of what caused such a vigorous display against him. 

This question gains even more relevance when considering the fact that this is not the first time that Kevin McCarthy has had difficulty in securing the Speakership. Then too, back in 2015 the House Freedom Caucus announced its opposition to giving McCarthy the gavel. That time came off the heels of ouster of John Boehner as Speaker by his fellow Republicans after they filed a motion for him to vacate. Last time though McCarthy withdrew after 24 hours from the race, ultimately paving the way for Paul Ryan to get the gavel. McCarthy did, however, later manage to become the minority leader of the Republicans in the House in 2018 by a secret ballot vote. Put simply, McCarthy has always had to contend with the more conservative wing of the party that views him with suspicion. 

One reason that led toward this negative view against the establishment Republican leadership, which McCarthy is a part of, was that a lot of pieces of legislation had been a result of corrupt bargains. The passage of the December 2022 omnibus spending bill through the House and Senate was highly illustrative of this process. The $1.7 trillion spending package, with its voluminous 4,100 pages, was dropped on many Congressmen without adequate time to read the entire bill and was largely the result of insider dealing between Congressional leadership. Many provisions of the deal were also controversial with some conservatives, like Representative Dan Bishop, who denounced the bill’s prohibition of the use of money for border security, among other items. Fiscal conservatives, noting the explosion of the national debt, have long had ire for the spendthrift nature of many bills that Congress has passed. Senator Rand Paul for instance cataloged around $482 billion in waste for one year alone. Some examples of this wasteful spending, included giving over $118,000 to study whether Marvel’s movie villain Thanos would be able to snap his fingers while wearing the Infinity Gauntlet and giving $2.3 million to inject puppies with cocaine. Hence there is much umbrage over the costly “we have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it” approach, that is at least over a decade long. 

Kevin McCarthy, Senator Mitch McConnell, Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, and the establishment Republican brand are also accused of killing the promised Red Wave of 2022. Such accusations revolved around the lack of their grassroots fundraising efforts and a Republican political machine that was overly reliant on election day turnout, to the Republican leadership of trying to counting the votes for their own leadership races even if this costs them a greater number of total seats held by Republicans in Congress, to a host of other problems. This feeling, that the leadership has sabotaged the representatives that the Republican base wants to put forth, is not new. For instance, Mitch McConnell is rather experienced in crushing and subverting anti-establishmentarian movements, as seen in the case of the Tea Party movement. McConnell is even on record as vowing that “we are going to crush them [Tea Party candidates] everywhere.” Republicans' poor performance in the 2022 midterm elections has led to calls for the leadership to step down and be replaced by fresh blood that is more connected to the Republican base and the public at large. So far, much of the leadership has managed to evade such calls, which has further frustrated the base. 

This evasion of responsibility by the leadership has been made possible by the long-term problems of centralization of power in leadership roles. In recent years, both parties have centralized its power in the hands of a few key positions, including the position of Speaker. Conservative members of the House are desirous of restoring the past norms of lawmaking like regular order, where legislation is developed in committee and is subject to open floor amendment. Since the 1970s, regular order has become less and less regular, with previously unorthodox behind-the-scenes maneuvers becoming more common in the legislative process. Former Republican Speaker of the House (from 1998 until 2007), Dennis Hastert, introduced the Hastert Rule, a centralizing measure, that prevented any legislation that did not have support from a majority of one’s fellow party members from coming to a vote. Nancy Pelosi, the previous Democratic Speaker, eliminated the Jeffersonian rule, which allowed any member to bring forward a motion of no-confidence. These and other measures have led to what some call the “Strong Speaker”, where the leadership dominates the pillars of power in the House, by controlling the distribution of election fundraising support, committee assignments, the staffing of the Rules Committee, and by choosing which (as well as when) bills are brought to the floor for a vote. 

However, this long-term process of the centralization of power has not fostered a greater public appreciation of Congress. Quite the contrary, public opinion of Congress has declined dramatically during this period. The state of public opinion in 2022 toward Congress was such that only 7 percent of people had a great deal of confidence in that institution. The poll also showed that Republicans in particular, feel less represented by their Congressional leadership than the Democrats. Both McConnell and McCarthy, have their own popularity problems with the GOP base. McConnell is especially hated by Republicans so much so that there are times that there are more Democrats that have a very favorable opinion of McConnell, than Republicans. 

The deal between the conservative anti-establishmentarian House Freedom Caucus and Kevin McCarthy was meant to address many of these issues and concerns. Much of the deal revolved around reforms about the rules that the House would operate by. The rules package restored the right for individual members of the House to file a motion to vacate against the Speaker, ended proxy voting, and promised that House members would be afforded a 72-hour period to review bills before they went to the floor for a vote. It also restored the Holman Rule that allowed amendments to government spending. The deal further promised that voting on spending bills would be divided by topic, rather than bundling these items into one omnibus spending bill and also included a pledge from McCarthy that his Congressional Leadership Fund PAC would stay out of Republican primaries in districts that are considered safe Republican seats. The agreement also granted more seats to the House Freedom Caucus on the Rules Committee, forming a sorely needed subcommittee for investigating the weaponization of the federal government, and agreeing to cap spending at levels from two years ago. This rules package was put to a vote and passed on January 9th with only one Republican, Tony Gonzales, voting against it. 

The power of the Speaker of the House has waxed and waned throughout American history. Back in 1910, a similar albeit bipartisan revolt occurred against Republican Speaker Joseph Cannon. Cannon, a conservative standpatter, stood accused of being a virtual dictator of the House and of using his powers to stymie the agenda of the progressives by preventing the House from voting on progressive legislation. Democratic Representative Oscar Underwood proclaimed that “we are fighting a system…that enables the Speaker…to thwart and overthrow the will of the majority membership of this House.” This revolt succeeded in altering the orders of the House and the powers of the Speaker. Nevertheless, Joseph Cannon would remain a powerful and influential figure even after this revolt. 

History tends to rhyme rather than repeat. Kevin McCarthy’s endorsement of the reforms package coupled with the successful passage of the package may bring about a more responsive and transparent House. Depending on how he governs the House, he may gain greater respect and popularity among the Republican voter base who presently feel very alienated from the party leadership. Should McCarthy try to revert back to the strong Speaker model or go against the spirit of the deal he will be at serious risk of losing the Speakership as well as any feelings of cautious reconciliation that the Republican base may have toward him. Perhaps the weaker Speakership will allow McCarthy- like it did for Cannon- for good or for ill, to remain a powerful figure within his party.

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