"Speaker Spats" Are Not A Bad Thing


Two things are worth remembering when you read about the long fight to elect a House Speaker. First, the dissenters were a mixed bag of principled conservatives and publicity hounds. Second, some good came out of the repeated voting to select Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as the new leader of the House. On the most recent episode of The Drill Down, hosts Peter Schweizer and Eric Eggers explore the positive things that came from the chaos.

The fifteen-round heavyweight battle was about setting House rules for the new Congress more than it was about McCarthy as a leader. By forcing fifteen votes over a week’s time, twenty very conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus fought for rules that reduce the power of the Speaker to control the legislative agenda and spread institutional power more broadly.

  • The rules now require that all members have time to read every bill before a floor vote, and allow them to offer amendments on the floor.
  • Amendments to bills must be “germane” to the legislation being considered.
  • The dissenters forced a return to a previous House rule that allows a single member to introduce a motion to “vacate the chair,” in essence forcing a vote of confidence in the Speaker. This obscure procedure has existed since Thomas Jefferson’s days as Vice President and is part of what’s known as “Jefferson’s Manual.” During her speakership, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, (D-CA) changed that rule to require a majority vote of the majority party to hold such a vote.
  • The rules also now contain a pledge that the House will decline to raise the US government’s debt ceiling without a plan to cap spending and balance the federal budget within 10 years, and a weak pledge not to return to the “blind embrace” of earmarks, a legislative tactic of allowing money to be designated for projects benefitting one important member’s district.

As Peter explains, these changes should make small-government fiscal conservatives happy. House rules are often used to load up spending bills with pork barrel spending for powerful members and to prevent measures designed to cut government spending from reaching the House floor.

Even some left-wing progressive Democrats see good from these rules changes. On her Instagram stream last Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) commended the dissenters for “democratizing the rules of the House and kind of breaking up that concentration of power that is so focused in a handful of leaders in both parties.” A writer for a liberal publication said that “though McCarthy’s defectors are plenty pointlessly disruptive, they are pushing for a few things that count as actual solutions. In theory, those proposals could even benefit progressive Democrats.”

While no one enjoyed seeing the House spend a full week just to select its Speaker, it is far from the first time in the body’s history that a protracted fight over the speakership has happened. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed out on his own podcast, in 1855 it took the House many weeks and 133 separate ballots to select its Speaker, reflecting the deep divide among the states over slavery and secession that would lead to the Civil War six years later.

One of the dissenters, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) pushed for many of these changes. National Review in an editorial said he “has a compelling vision for how a House should work with more power for the rank-and-file, all toward his goal of reducing federal spending. He played a commendable role in the speaker fight over the last week.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO).

By contrast, the faction of dissenters led by Florida congressman Matt Gaetz and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert showed little dedication to principle but lots of desire to get in front of the cameras and to raise money for themselves based on their notoriety.

Which goes to show that even when things do change, other things in Washington remain the same.