What’s your Plan D, then?
If you’re new to the dysfunction drama unfolding on Capitol Hill (or have just lost track), here’s a quick reminder of the insanity that has kept the House of Representatives in a stalemate for so long:
Punishing those in authority was the downfall of Plan A. Hardline After relying on Democrats to pass a short-term funding bill to keep the government open last month, Republicans fired Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the man who spent years engineering his climb to become House speaker.
Lesson learned: Plan B was unsuccessful. Rep. Steve Scalise, McCarthy’s No. 2 in the House, was unable to win enough Republican support in the initial vote to replace McCarthy. After being offered the role, Scalise turned it down. He will continue to serve as the House’s majority leader.
The right wing’s polarising nature doomed Plan C. Despite the right-wing media machine’s relentless pressure campaign and Fox News host Sean Hannity’s personal lobbying, conservative Republican Rep. Jim Jordan (a founding member of the hardline Freedom Caucus) was unable to unite the party in two rounds of voting.
Jordan has the option of calling for a new vote, but his opponents’ support is only growing. There seems to be growing momentum to give some additional power to the placeholder, Representative Patrick McHenry, whose chief qualification may be that he says he has no real interest in the job of House speaker, as time runs out on that short-term funding bill (the government will continue operating until November 17).
As speaker pro tempore, McHenry has the power to keep the House in session but no longer to enact legislation after McCarthy was removed as speaker.
McHenry will likely need the support of Democrats to rise to prominence.
After Democrats refused to pull McCarthy back from the outskirts of the Republican conference, they might support giving McCarthy temporary power to open the House and tackle that budget package.
A simple resolution granting McHenry the authority to temporarily move appropriations bills may serve as the vehicle for such an agreement.
Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), who voted for McCarthy instead of Jordan in both rounds, told AWN’s Manu Raju after Jordan’s second defeat, “I think it’s imperative that we empower Patrick McHenry to serve, at least for the time being, in that speaker role so that he can get the House moving again on critical issues including obviously needed additional financial support for Israel.”
The Hill reports that three former Republican House speakers seem to support temporarily elevating McHenry: former Reps. Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and Paul Ryan.
Gingrich wrote on his website that if no permanent speaker can be selected in the next few days, McHenry should be elevated until the new year because “America does not have the luxury to stand by and allow a handful of destructive Republicans – or even the legitimate ambitions of good people – to keep the system from working.”
Though McHenry is a Republican and a conservative one at that, other Republicans like Jordan are opposed to the notion because they think it would amount to a “coalition government” rather than a Republican speaker.
On Tuesday, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries gave a very open-sounding response when Raju asked if Democrats were interested in a Speaker McHenry-like figure:
“Our focus right now relates not just to any one individual, but to getting the institution reopened,” said Jeffries, but he noted that he and Democrats hold McHenry in high regard. “I think he is respected on our side of the aisle,” Jeffries remarked.
The House of Representatives has been led by partisan speakers for generations, so even a temporary speaker elected with bipartisan support would be a profound structural pivot.
The leadership problem cannot be resolved by appointing a temporary speaker.
Prof. Sarah Binder of George Washington University and the Brookings Institution has been tweeting (formerly known as “tweeting”) on the historical precedence for appointing a speaker pro tempore in the absence of a speaker.
I emailed her to find out why having a temporary speaker would be desirable, and she said it’s not a great solution to a leadership vacuum, but it might be the least awful alternative.
“A vacant speakership – for whatever reason – signals a potential crisis in the House,” Binder said, adding that “the goal is to get the legislative machinery of the House functioning again.”
I wondered whether, by having a speaker with fewer powers than normal, we could be returning to the original role of the speaker of the House, which was to act as a kind of traffic cop for the chamber rather than a powerful party boss. She suggested it would be “untrodden territory” if McHenry were given greater power with support from both parties.
There is no guarantee that a speaker elected with bipartisan support will foster cooperation between the parties.
Joseph Postell, a politics professor at Hillsdale College, argues that the fact that some Republicans and Democrats may (emphasis on the could; this is a highly fluid scenario) vote together for strengthening McHenry does not portend a less combative culture on Capitol Hill. He had already filled me in on the rarity of the Republican party betraying McCarthy.
If the job of House speaker were to become permanently less powerful, Postell warned, the environment would become even more politicised.
“If the Speaker returned to a neutral presiding officer role,” Postell told me via email, “the Majority Leader would likely assume a lot of the power that the Speaker currently has.”
He further noted that the office of majority leader is uniquely politicised, being chosen by the party in power rather than the full House of Representatives.
“This would make the leadership position more partisan, not less partisan,” he argued.