For several days, Americans and others around the world have had their eyes glued to the spectacle of the US House of Representatives trying — and failing, 14 times — to elect a new Speaker. Now, by making even more concessions, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California has finally grasped the gavel. McCarthy has won, but at an alarming cost for the country and his own party.
Some features of the conflict in the Republican Party that we saw on display this week are nothing new. Every party has its ideological factions. Others, though, represent a fundamental change.
Unlike the dissidents who challenged the congressional leadership in the past, this week’s holdouts belong to the party’s most extreme wing. By forcing concessions, they have made their personal ideological convictions the program of the Republican Party.
Setting the agenda
At stake in the last two months of Republican horse-trading was the authority of the Speaker of the House, the only congressional leadership officer specified in the Constitution. To the degree allowed by House rules, the Speaker sets the chamber’s agenda and mobilises the majority party to act.
The score of Republicans who brought the business of the House to a standstill sought to reduce the Speaker’s power substantially.
They forced McCarthy to accede to a rule change that would once again allow a single member to call a no-confidence vote on his leadership. And now, by holding out longer, they have gotten McCarthy to give up even more.
Intra-party disputes over the powers of the leadership are not new. The last stalemate over the choice of Speaker, in 1923, hinged on demands by progressive Republicans for procedural concessions from the party’s conservatives, particularly Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, the Speaker for the previous two terms.
Similarly, a 1910 “revolt” against Joseph Cannon of Illinois, also led by progressive Republicans, loosened the Speaker’s grip on policy and prerogatives.
The current alignment of forces is very different, though, because it is no longer “moderates” who are demanding changes from the party leadership; it is extremists. Although most of the holdouts were only recently elected, they are clearly the spiritual descendants of the Tea Party movement that barrelled into Congress in 2010.
“Principles” above “expediency"
For a dozen years, members of this cohort set their “principles” above “expediency,” as they would put it, and refused to support appropriations bills, increases in the debt limit, and other essential legislation. They then watched as Republican leaders — motivated by a sense of responsibility or a fear of the consequences of failure — cut deals with the Democrats in the House and the Senate to ensure that essential legislation was enacted.
The extremists then exacted their revenge on the leadership after the fact. In 2014, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — the next in line for the Speakership — suffered a shocking defeat by a right-wing challenger from his own party.
That was merely a prelude: The same extremist forces then purged Republican Speaker John Boehner in 2015, and drove out Speaker Paul Ryan in 2019. Now, they have succeeded in denying the leadership the option of working responsibly across the aisle, by reintroducing a mechanism that will subject the Speaker to the constant threat of immediate ouster.
This is no small matter. It makes a world of difference whether the challenges to party leadership arise from the middle or from the extremes. Increasing the weight of moderates generally benefits both party and country. For the country, it fosters the kind of bipartisan cooperation that is necessary to conduct the legislative branch’s business. And for the party, it creates a record with broader appeal, leading to better results in future elections.
By contrast, the concessions today’s dissidents have achieved will hurt the Republicans as well as the country. In effect, the extremists demand that their party’s leaders pursue no legislation of which they personally disapprove, no matter how important it is to the party’s future, and no matter how vital it is to the country. Not only do they want to cut off all cooperation with Democrats (as disturbing as that posture is); they also want to force their own Republican colleagues to bend to their will, the will of the few.
Ever since the Republicans regained control of the House in 1995, the party leadership has observed the Hastert Rule. Implemented by Speaker Dennis Hastert (a Republican from Illinois who was later imprisoned for child molestation), it requires the leadership to advance only those policies that command the support of a majority of the Republican conference.
Now that the extreme elements in the GOP have won, the new, excessive fetters on the leadership raise the prospect of prolonged government shutdowns and a historic default on the national debt.
They also jeopardise the party’s future. Of the 200 Republicans who supported McCarthy on the initial votes for Speaker, 18 represent districts that voted for Joe Biden in 2020. A couple dozen more could be at risk if the Republican leadership fails to fulfil its responsibilities to the American people.
The extremists in the Republican Party love to scorn their moderate colleagues as “Republicans in Name Only” (RINOs). But the demands of the moderates were for the benefit of the party (and the country), both when they challenged the leadership in the past and when they supported it recently. So, who are the real RINOs?
John Mark Hansen is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.