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John Fortier

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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Changing speakers isn’t actually going to help Republicans

Nov 02, 2023

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After three weeks without a speaker and three unsuccessful attempts to secure the required votes for a new one, the U.S. House of Representatives elected a little-known Congressman from Louisiana, Rep. Mike Johnson. But was the decision to elect Rep. Johnson, who leans hard-right and pro-Trump, a wise move for the Republican Party?

Straight Arrow News contributor John Fortier delves into the reasons behind the effort to replace Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the lengthy process it entailed, and the potential long-term consequences that may arise from this decision.

At the end of the day, the great prospect of a new majority in the House gives way to the realization that, at best, Republicans can wrest only modest concessions by making big compromises that many members see as undesirable. 

So what is the upshot of the nearly month-long replacement of the speaker? In the short term, it has been embarrassing for Republicans. Time has been wasted, with a potential government shutdown looming. But in the long term, it’s not clear that all of this turmoil has changed much. Speaker Johnson will face the same difficult process of trying to hold together Republicans to wrest minor concessions on appropriations.

And while some critics of Republicans claim that the dissension will hurt Republicans in the ’24 election, they get the story backwards. Almost certainly, the 2024 election will be driven most by the top of the ticket, not by perceptions of the House. Especially, a Trump-Biden rematch would put all of this controversy in the rearview mirror.

A sound and fury fall controversy perhaps signifying nothing.

What is the fallout of the recent Republican fight over the speakership? Why did it happen? And will it hurt Republicans in upcoming political battles and elections? Let’s consider a frequently made argument. Republicans brought down speaker McCarthy by a revolt of the most conservative Republicans in the caucus. This has, at best, a small element of truth. So it’s not primarily a revolt of the most conservative. What were the causes of the removal of speaker McCarthy and the drawn out election process that led to Speaker Mike Johnson. 

First, the closeness of the house and second, that closeness combined with the fact of divided government with a Republican controlled House. The seeds of Republican discord were sown in their disappointing performance in the 2022 midterm elections. Yes, the Republicans regained the majority in the House, but they underperformed expectations. Many commentators predicted they would win 20 to 25 seats. Instead, they won nine, eking out a 222 to 213 majority at the start of the Congress. This narrow majority paved the way for all of the machinations of the election of speaker McCarthy and his eventual removal. 

Prior to the midterm election, Kevin McCarthy had done a good job securing strong support for his speakership across the Republican caucus, including moderates, but importantly, also including the vast majority of conservatives. Almost all of the prominent conservatives supported McCarthy. But with a very narrow majority, only five Republicans were needed to deny McCarthy the speaker initially and prevent his victory for many votes, all the while extracting concessions. 

One of those concessions that a single member would trigger a vote to remove the speaker started the controversy all over again this fall. But the big point is that most conservatives supported McCarthy, and had Republicans won five more seats in the 2022 election, the election contest, the concessions and McCarthy’s downfall, would likely never have happened. 

A second reason for the fall of speaker is that Republicans had a narrow majority in divided government. Had Republicans control the House, Senate and presidency, there would have been challenges holding together all Republicans, but not the same kind of frustration that comes with holding a house majority in divided government. The main source of contention and divided government is the debates over must pass items such as raising of the debt ceiling, or the funding of government so it can continue to function. With control of the House, the best Republicans can hope for is to unite Republicans around an alternative budget, with lower spending or conditions on or concessions from President Biden. If Republicans successfully unite around an alternative, then the bargaining with the White House and Senate begin, and ultimately the Republican House must compromise again from its proposal. 

At the end of the day, the great prospect of a new majority in the House gives way to the realization that at best, Republicans can rest only modest concessions by making big compromises that many members see as undesirable. 

So what is the upshot of the nearly month long replacement of the speaker? In the short term, it has been embarrassing for Republicans. Time has been wasted with a potential government shutdown looming. But in the long term, it’s not clear that all of this turmoil has changed much. Speaker Johnson will face the same difficult process of trying to hold together Republicans to rest minor concessions on Appropriations. And while some critics of Republicans claim that the dissension will hurt Republicans in the 24 election, they get the story backwards. Almost certainly the 2024 election will be driven most by the top of the ticket, not by perceptions of the house. Especially a Trump-Biden rematch would put all of this controversy in the rearview mirror. A sound and fury fall controversy perhaps signifying nothing

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