Political pundits are having a field day with the dramatic election of Republican Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the U.S. House last week. McCarthy finally won by a one-vote margin after 15 ballots, the most ballots needed in a Speaker election since before the Civil War.
McCarthy desperately craved the speakership, to the point that to get it, he traded a number of its traditional powers to the far-right hardliners of the Republican Party. His tactics will change the dynamics of how the House functions for at least the next two years.
The resulting situation contrasts sharply with the past two years of leadership in the House, when Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi ran the institution with little open opposition from within her own party, despite the determination of a potent “progressive caucus” of House Democrats.
Pelosi entered her most recent and final term as Speaker with exactly the same partisan majority as McCarthy is entering his first—Pelosi in 2021 and McCarthy in 2023, each with partisan majorities of 222 to 213. In the Republicans’ case it’s the second-smallest majority in the last 90 years. When commentators in 2021 sized up Pelosi’s leadership situation, many of them predicted serious divisions regarding legislation within the Democratic House caucus.
But while House Democrats differed on some issues, Pelosi proved able to maintain control of her caucus. In cooperation with Democratic President Joe Biden and the Democratic Senate, she pushed through an impressive list of bills on economic and cultural issues alike.
McCarthy faces stiffer headwinds as he begins his speakership, some simply because the Senate and the Presidency remain in Democratic hands. Another component of his challenge, of course, rests in the two dozen or so hardliners in the Republican House Conference, most of whom voted against McCarthy on several initial ballots for Speaker last week.
Pelosi’s strength, ironically, derived in part from a significant rules change that House Republicans made more than six years ago, when House Democrats, under the “open rules” then prevailing, were able to repeatedly propose amendments to government funding bills regarding Confederate symbols at federal institutions.
Republicans proved themselves unable to defeat those amendments, so instead they just canceled the open-rule process. When Pelosi took power with the Democratic House majority in January 2019, she was happy to continue House operations without the open rule, thereby restricting floor amendments.
It’s unlikely that new Speaker McCarthy will enjoy that advantage. His hard line GOP House colleagues will probably make it impossible for him to do anything without their say-so. Among the concessions McCarthy made in order to harvest the votes necessary for his election as Speaker was a new rule that gives any member the right to move to “vacate the chair”—that is, to force a vote on whether McCarthy should retain his speakership.
McCarthy probably can’t hope to glean any support from Democrats to stay in power, so if he tries to force through a bill without the approval of only half a dozen or so of his right-wing colleagues, he will probably have to face a retention vote for his position. The House thereby will operate more like a parliament, where the leader of the body must command enough support within his own party at any given time to keep his leadership position.
If McCarthy should decide to seek support from Democrats, they will no doubt demand significant legislative concessions for their favorite projects. To quote Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the House rules committee: “I’m not a cheap date.”
Perhaps the most significant face-offs between McCarthy’s supporters and the House hardliners will take place in the next several months. The government is likely this summer to bump up against the permitted debt ceiling, which now stands at $31.4 trillion. In addition, Congress must fund federal agencies by Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
To renege on the debt ceiling extension, which pays for loans and expenditures already made, would send an earthquake through world financial markets and economies. The chief economist of Moody’s Analytics in 2021 predicted that a default on the national debt would cost up to six million Americans their jobs and wipe out as much as $15 trillion in household wealth.
Failure to fund federal agencies before Sept. 30 would cause a federal government shutdown of “non-essential” offices and bureaus. The last such shutdown, from December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019, a 35-day period, was the longest in U.S. history. It was the 21st in American history; the previous 20 shutdowns each lasted only a few days.
The 2018/19 shutdown temporarily closed, in part or in full, nine executive departments with about 800,000 employees, affecting about 25 percent of government activities, with employees either furloughed or forced to work without pay. The Congressional Budget Office estimated it cost the American economy at least $11 billion, excluding unquantifiable indirect costs.
Legislative storm clouds are now gathering over both the debt ceiling and the budget because the House Republican hardliners have indicated they want to fuse the two issues, setting specific limits on spending if the debt ceiling is to be increased. If they are successful in their determination, a shutdown could easily result.
A budget, of course, can be balanced in two ways: cutting spending or raising income. In the federal government’s case, Democrats have traditionally called for increasing taxes on the wealthy, many of whom already avoid paying their full federal tax obligation now on the books.
Most Republicans determinedly reject the option of raising taxes on the wealthy, and strongly oppose the increase in the number of Internal Revenue Service employees approved by the Democratic Congress and President Biden last year. The boost to IRS employee numbers is designed to achieve more audits of the tax returns of wealthy Americans.
At any rate, regardless of what specifically will come out of the House this year, it’s undeniable that it will not be business as usual. Whether McCarthy can retain his speakership is also an open question.