The Price for Speaker McCarthy
His concessions to get the job may cost vital U.S. defense spending.
Updated Jan. 7, 2023 12:39 am ET
Rep.Kevin McCarthy, Jan.6.PHOTO: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Kevin McCarthy finally won enough votes to become Speaker of the U.S. House early Saturday, on the 15th roll call. His latest concessions turned 15 votes, and then enough of the last holdouts voted “present” to give him a majority. But the price of victory has been high—both in lost authority for the new Speaker and perhaps in the ability of the new Republican majority to get anything done.
Don’t believe the happy talk that this was a healthy display of deliberative democracy. This was a power play. A group of backbenchers saw an opportunity to exploit the narrow GOP margin of five seats to put themselves in positions of power that they hadn’t earned through seniority or influence with colleagues.
They couched their demands in claims of high principle and fixing a “broken” House by returning to “regular order.” Some of what they sought could do some good, such as holding votes on all 12 spending bills for a change. Democrats and some Republicans prefer trillion-dollar omnibus bills that hide a thousand special-interest favors and earmarks. Holding votes on a constitutional amendment for term limits and a balanced-budget resolution are symbolic but have no chance of becoming law.
But note that the rebel demands included gaining seats of power for themselves. They won two seats on the Rules Committee that sets the terms for floor debate and amendments. This could narrow Mr. McCarthy’s maneuvering room as he tries to put together majorities for legislation.
They also won a pledge that the top-line budget figure for domestic discretionary spending in fiscal 2024 won’t exceed what it was in fiscal 2022. That includes defense spending, which would have to fall by $75 billion if the cuts are split with nondefense accounts.
Whatever happened to “regular order”? The holdouts have imposed their own budget policy here on the rest of the GOP House. The GOP’s defense hawks may be able to carve out more for the military than for social spending, but the pressure for defense cuts will be great.
That’s a terrible signal to send adversaries who are increasingly belligerent, as well as to defense contractors who need certainty about funding to make proper investments. The dovish House Republicans will find themselves allied with President Biden and the Democratic left, of all people. The Senate will have to save the day.
The biggest potential problem for Mr. McCarthy is his agreement to let any single Member of the majority party move to “vacate the chair” for what is essentially a no-confidence vote on his Speakership. The claim is that this is no big deal and was merely the status quo before Nancy Pelosi had Democrats vote to change the rule.
But this makes Mr. McCarthy hostage to anyone who wants to cause trouble, or grandstand to fund-raise. It is likely to be used less in practice than as a threat to extort policy or other concessions on legislation. Once upon a time in Congress no individual Member or even small group would dare to do this. But that was before our current age of performative politics and the triumph of the individual political “brand.”
All of this—and other details that we’ll no doubt discover in the coming days—will complicate the ability of the GOP to govern. With a Democratic White House and Senate, the only leverage House Republicans have is the ability to deliver 218 votes. The gang of 20 this week has demonstrated that the tail of one House faction can wag the majority. Don’t be surprised if others do the same.
This week of House melodrama won’t matter in the long run if Republicans can unite and govern like a coherent majority. If they can’t, Mr. McCarthy may regret the high price he paid for the honor of being called Speaker. The country may regret it too.