Column: GOP will try again to pick speaker on party-line vote
John A. Boehner lasted five years as House speaker before he ran out of patience with his party’s hard-line Freedom Caucus.
“Legislative terrorists,” the Ohio Republican called its members after he quit in 2015. “They can’t tell you what they’re for. They can tell you everything they’re against. They’re anarchists. They want total chaos.”
Next came Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who lasted three years. “The House is broken,” he griped on his way out.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) lasted all of nine months.
“They are not conservatives,” he said of the Freedom Caucus after they led the drive to oust him as speaker last week. “They don’t get to say they’re conservative because they’re angry and they’re chaotic.”
See a pattern?
Ever since the tea party movement of 2010 elected a wave of anti-establishment conservatives, House Republicans have not merely been divided, but downright dysfunctional.
Freedom Caucus members aren’t only more conservative than other Republicans; many see their party’s leaders as adversaries.
And they don’t believe in compromise — even when their party holds a narrow majority in only one house of Congress, and must reach deals with the Democratic-led Senate to keep the federal government running.
“They view the party as [too] willing to bargain with Democrats,” said Kevin Kosar, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “[They] run on the Republican label, but get into Congress by trashing Republicans.”
Many GOP voters agree with them. An Economist/YouGov poll from July indicated that most Republicans want members of Congress to stick with principle “no matter what” rather than compromise to get things done.
That sentiment is especially strong in districts with big Republican majorities.
Most Democrats surveyed said the opposite: They wanted their representatives to compromise when necessary.
McCarthy’s dilemma was that he was trapped between the hard-liners’ refusal to compromise and his desire to avoid being blamed for a government shutdown.
On Sept. 30, he sponsored a funding bill to keep the government running for 45 days. It passed the House with votes from a slim majority of Republicans and almost every Democrat.
“There’s no bill that can pass with [only] one party or the other,” he noted.
But that modest bipartisan compromise triggered a full-scale revolt by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and seven others in the Freedom Caucus. Gaetz demanded a vote on a motion to remove McCarthy as speaker. The eight Freedom Caucus rebels were joined by 208 Democrats, and McCarthy abruptly lost his job.
The irony is that McCarthy was right. When one party holds a slim majority in the House and the other holds a slim majority in the Senate, neither can achieve results without bipartisan compromise.
Even in the deeply partisan House, where conservative Republicans share little common ground with liberal Democrats, a bipartisan majority wanted to avoid a government shutdown.
So why did Democrats vote McCarthy out?
There are several explanations. For one, Democrats — like many Republicans — simply didn’t trust the glad-handing Californian.
He wasn’t a reliable negotiating partner. Weeks after he reached a hard-fought agreement with President Biden over spending levels, he walked away from it.
McCarthy regularly wilted in the face of pressure from his party. After a mob loyal to then-President Trump stormed the Capitol in January 2021, he denounced their action. But he voted against certifying Biden’s election, and rushed to see Trump at Mar-a-Lago to apologize for his apostasy.
The simplest explanation may be that McCarthy never asked the Democrats for help. He knew they would have asked for something in return — more seats on committees, perhaps, or changing the rule that allowed Gaetz to seek McCarthy’s ouster. The speaker knew that for every Democratic vote he gained, he risked losing more Republican votes.
But there’s also a deeper reason: The House is organized along party lines, and has been for almost 200 years.
Almost every member runs for office under a party label, relies on party loyalists for votes and turns to their party for help with campaign funding.
Partisan legislation is the norm, and bipartisan initiatives are the exception.
House rules often make bipartisan cooperation difficult. Members from two parties are not allowed to sponsor bills jointly; a bill is allowed only one sponsor. A bipartisan task force is trying to ease that rule, but its proposal hasn’t gone anywhere.
The partisan model is especially stark when it comes to how the House is organized. Every committee chairman comes from the majority. Every speaker in living memory has been elected by the majority party.
“That paradigm has been around so long, it has acquired almost constitutional status,” noted William Galston, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution.
The strongest proof of that proposition is that as soon as McCarthy lost his job, other Republicans jumped to replace him — within the same one-party structure that had brought him down.
House Republicans appear to be hoping that Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), McCarthy’s second in command, or Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus member endorsed by Trump, can knit the party together more successfully.
But there’s little reason to expect a different outcome. The next speaker will wrestle with the same unstable majority as his predecessor.
There is an alternative, at least in theory: a coalition speaker elected by members of both parties.
Galston, a supporter of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, is promoting the idea.
“This crisis could also be an opportunity … to break the traditional paradigm,” he said.
His proposal: Members from both parties should support a Republican speaker who agrees to new, less partisan rules.
“Moderate Republicans need to say no to any new speaker without rules changes,” he said — beginning with the rule that allowed Gaetz to depose McCarthy. “Moderate Democrats need to take a step forward for the sake of looking like the reasonable party.”
That option won’t come into play if Republicans quickly elect one of their members the old-fashioned way. But if they deadlock, “it’s a useful option,” Galston said.
And if it doesn’t work this time, it might come in handy later. If history is any guide, the next speaker won’t hold the job long.
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