Late Friday evening, Kevin McCarthy was elected as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 15th round of voting, bringing a grueling week of negotiations with critics in his own party to a close.
While a total of 21 Republicans had voted against McCarthy throughout the week, the California congressman had pared that number down to six by the 13th ballot. On the 15th, all six voted “present,” lowering the threshold for victory and pushing McCarthy over the finish line.
The eleventh-hour concessions McCarthy made to the conservative holdouts could transform the way the House operates as the 118th Congress begins its work next week.
The splashiest detail of the stalemate-breaking framework was a promise to place three members of the party’s conservative wing on the powerful House Rules Committee. The committee, nicknamed the “traffic cop of Congress,” controls the rules under which bills are introduced to the floor and controls the flow of legislation through the body.
Given the Republican Party’s narrow majority, these three seats would give the conservative Republicans substantial leverage over the legislative process, with the option to deadlock business before it even reaches the House floor.
On the subject of committees, McCarthy has also agreed to field a Judiciary subcommittee specially empowered to investigate alleged abuses of power by the federal government, modeled on the Church Committee of the 1970s. The push for a latter-day Church Committee was spearheaded by Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC), who called the compromise “a victory for the Constitutional rights of all Americans.”
In an interview with The Dallas Express, Wade Miller, executive director of Citizens for Renewing America, explained the subject of the proposed Bishop Committee’s investigations as “domestic intelligence abuses against the American people.”
Miller explained the work ahead as “oversight on steroids,” given that the subcommittee’s narrow focus will mean its members “can really dig in” and “actually put a case together.” A Bishop Committee would be able to investigate any abuse of power or “weaponization of the federal government,” as Bishop himself put it, against American citizens. This mandate would cover virtually any agency, ranging from the FBI to the Department of Education.
As with the original Church Committee, one potentially powerful tool for a Bishop Committee could be unilateral declassification, without the consent of the executive branch.
Another key area on which McCarthy compromised was budget and appropriations. In a nod back to the fiscally conservative roots of the House Freedom Caucus — many of whose members led the resistance to McCarthy’s speakership — the holdouts forced the new speaker to commit to appropriations at FY22 levels. Among other cuts, this plank will require substantial reconsideration of ballooning defense spending.
McCarthy has also agreed to block any increase in the debt ceiling — a subject that will come up later this year — unless Democrats meet Republican demands on discretionary spending. This concession is likely to force hardball negotiations when the debt ceiling conversation rolls around.
Other tenets of the negotiated framework likely to reignite House debate include a shift away from omnibus spending to individual appropriations bills and the reinstitution of a 72-hour waiting period before voting on a bill after its introduction. This latter provision in particular will give members more time to read through proposed legislation, as well as to draft and introduce amendments.
Miller notes that, on both sides of the aisle, this will open up opportunities for “simple fixes that would make a bill better.”
The crowning achievement of the conservative Republicans, however, will allow any one member to introduce a “motion to vacate,” effectively initiating a no-confidence vote in McCarthy and potentially ousting him from the speakership.
Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who emerged as the leader of the anti-McCarthy forces over the course of the week, touted the negotiated rules package as “exquisite” on Saturday.
While “from a rhetorical perspective” the speakership is “still very strong,” according to Miller, the compromise McCarthy reached to secure the office amounts to a massive transfer of power back to rank-and-file members — both Republican and Democrat. This could mean not just a weaker speakership but a loosened party grip over representatives and much more lively debate between and within parties.
“The entire way that the House floor is going to operate is going to be entirely transformational,” Miller said.