Kevin McCarthy Is Haunting Mike Johnson

By Chanak Maduranga

Published on:

Kevin McCarthy Is Haunting Mike Johnson
  • Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was forced to cut deals to win the speakership.
  • McCarthy’s agreements are now making Speaker Mike Johnson’s life more difficult.
  • In particular, McCarthy granted power to conservatives who frequently defy Johnson’s wishes.

House Speaker Mike Johnson can blame his problems on his predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Anyone may have struggled to wrangle this slim Republican majority. But it’s the concessions that McCarthy made to achieve his long-held ambition that made it near impossible for Johnson, or likely anyone else, to be an effective speaker.

In January 2023, McCarthy and his allies were forced to cut a deal with the 20 holdouts that ground business in the chamber to a halt by refusing to accept the California Republican as their leader. To break the stalemate, McCarthy offered a series of concessions.

Two of the biggest carrots have since become powerful sticks for conservatives to swing against him and now Johnson. The House Freedom Caucus cares so much about protecting the power these agreements gave them that they have tapped a crack team, known as the Floor Action Response Team (FART), to monitor any potential changes.

The most noticeable was making it possible for any single lawmaker to file a motion to vacate, the formal process by which the House can rid itself of a speaker. McCarthy reportedly once viewed such a low threshold as a redline, but still agreed to the rules change. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, later made history by taking advantage of the rule to force McCarthy’s ouster. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, has started the process to oust Johnson.

But congressional experts at the time were as worried about another part of McCarthy’s deal. He offered three seats on the powerful House Rules Committee to more conservative members. It may not seem like much, but the panel, known as the Speaker’s Committee, is how the speaker maintains control of the floor.

The speaker should be able to guarantee the outcome he or she wants because they get to pick the committee’s members. The rules committee determines the procedures for how legislation reaches the floor, wielding power to limit potential poison-pill amendments and to limit debate. For those reasons, conservatives have clashed with the panel recently because they want more open debate. McCarthy, and just about every other recent speaker, has pledged more debate on the floor, but in practice, that can be a hard promise to keep.

The Rules Committee keeps the House moving, but Johnson has been forced to maneuver around it in the face of likely opposition to major bills. But the end around comes with a steep cost, the requirement that legislation receive two-thirds support instead of just a simple majority. As a result, Johnson has been forced to rely on House Democrats to avoid partial government shutdowns, fund the Pentagon, and pass a $79 billion bipartisan tax bill.

McCarthy wasn’t trying to make his life harder. Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who until recently chaired the Rules Committee, told Politico that the Californian wanted to know about potential problems earlier on.

“The reality is, I mean, this is McCarthy’s idea is that if I’m going to have a problem, I want to see it in the Rules Committee and not on the floor,” Cole said. “We’ve never had a problem in passing a rule.”

Cole stressed that the problem was not with his panel but with what happened later on the floor. It is worth noting that Johnson has had to bypass the panel completely. And when the panel’s work reaches the floor, the chaos deepens. Since Republicans took control in 2022, the GOP has failed seven times to pass the rule on the floor, which is an important legislative step as after passing the rule, debate on the actual legislation can begin. In comparison, the House went over two decades without such a failure, per CNN.

All of these headaches, and the need for McCarthy’s deals in the first place, are exacerbated by the reality the House GOP has one of thinnest majorities in history. Republicans began the current Congress with a 221 to 218 majority. Since then, the GOP’s numbers have been whittled down by former Rep. George Santos’ expulsion and early resignations by members who have tired of the daily drama. Unlike the Senate, states cannot appoint someone to fill a vacant seat. Instead, states must hold special elections. It can take months for that process. And in the case of Santos, the GOP could also lose the seat. Johnson will soon only have a one-vote majority for any party-line legislation.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich summed up Johnson’s reality rather grimly.

“Well, he has the narrowest majority in modern times, and it’s not a true majority, because he’s got six or eight narcissists — people who think that they individually get to screw up everything,” Gingrich told Politico.

Chanak Maduranga

passionate journalist behind 'USA News Now 24', dedicated to delivering timely and accurate updates on US affairs. Committed to journalistic integrity and informing audiences with credible news coverage.

Leave a Comment