Who Controls the House after the Debt-Limit Deal?

13 June, 2023
Philip Wallach

National Review

It is the moderates in the chamber, rather than the members on either extreme, who have the most power.

Something remarkable happened in the House of Representatives last Tuesday: For the first time in 21 years, a rule was voted down on the floor of the House. Rather than vote with their own majority party, as has been nearly automatic on rule votes in recent years, eleven Republican members voted with Democrats to sink the rule. (Representative Steve Scalise (R., La.), the House majority leader, then also voted against the rule for procedural reasons.)

“Rule” in this context means a tailored set of instructions dictating which legislation is eligible for formal consideration and what kinds of debate will be permissible. Such rules, which are the principal work of the Rules Committee, structure the agenda in the House, especially for politically contested bills. Leaders of both parties have drummed into their rank-and-file members a clear sense that a failure to pass a rule is tantamount to forfeiting the advantages of holding the majority. They assume there will be no surprises on these votes, with dissenters expected to bring forward any concerns well before a rule comes to a vote on the floor.

Ironically, the defecting Republicans did not actually dislike the rule that they defeated — they liked the substance of the bills being brought up and they liked the terms of debate set out by the rule. Indeed, two of them, Representatives Ralph Norman (R., S.C.) and Chip Roy (R., Texas), had previously voted in favor of the rule in committee. But they nevertheless decided to sink the rule on the floor to register their displeasure with the recent debt-limit deal. Embarrassing their party’s leaders was their main objective. They have expressed a willingness to vote against all their party’s rules unless and until Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) satisfies their understanding of the terms of the deal they made with him in January in order finally to resolve the 15-round speakership battle.

Where does this internecine fight leave House Republicans? Is McCarthy effectively hobbled as the leader of his party’s narrow majority — and, if so, does he have other options for managing the chamber? Or should we expect these eleven members to somehow call the shots now?

Back in December 2022, when it had become clear that McCarthy’s path to the speakership would be a bumpy one, some predicted that even if the Californian won the job, he would not wield any real power. The far right’s shirt-layering Nostradamus, Steve Bannon, ventured that Representatives Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.) would become “de facto” speakers, wielding power “in actuality” if not as a matter of formal position.

Media coverage of the speakership struggle gave many people the impression that Bannon was basically correct, if perhaps focused on the wrong agitators. McCarthy only secured the speakership by making a complicated deal with a group of 14 Republican members led by Roy. He agreed to put Roy, Norman, and Representative Thomas Massie (R., Ky.) on the crucial House Rules Committee. (Rules is the most unbalanced committee in terms of partisan membership; in its current configuration, the majority party gets nine seats and the minority party just four.) There were reports of other, less transparent commitments, as well; from the beginning, the conservative dissidents were very worried about the possibility of McCarthy cutting deals with Democrats, and many speculated that McCarthy had essentially promised to give no quarter in this year’s fiscal debates. Importantly, the dissidents were also given an enforcement mechanism: Any single member would be empowered to make a motion to vacate the chair (MTV), which amounts to forcing a no-confidence vote on the speaker. Given McCarthy’s razor-thin margin in getting elected, this seemed to many observers to mean that McCarthy’s intraparty critics could blow up his speakership at will.

Well, McCarthy did indeed do a deal with the Democrats, and it became law notwithstanding the objections of Gaetz, Roy, and most of the other lawmakers who opposed his ascension in January. (Greene, it should be noted, supported both McCarthy’s election and the debt-limit deal.) The bill’s passage was not a close call; it had the support of more than two-thirds of Republicans and nearly four-fifths of Democrats.

The bill’s path through the House was not without some suspense, however. The rule bringing the bill to the floor squeaked through the Rules Committee on a narrow 7–6 vote, with Roy and Norman voting against. On the House floor, 29 GOP members opposed the rule, meaning that it would come nowhere close to passage on the strength of Republican votes alone. In a bit of high procedural drama, it was only after Democrats had made Republicans squirm that 52 members of the minority threw their support behind the rule, which ultimately passed 241–187.

This leaves us with an obvious question: Why were the deal’s opponents unable to stop it, given the concessions they had extracted from McCarthy back in January? During that fight, Roy had criticized a House run by “a handful of self-selected power brokers who make all the calls” and demanded the ability to “control the legislation that gets to the floor.” He characterized the rules package secured when his faction made peace with McCarthy as a “fundamental transformation of this House to ensure the people can be represented by their representatives.” But in the end, much like previous debt-ceiling deals, this one was brokered by congressional leaders and the president and ratified by a bipartisan majority. What happened?

It has now become obvious that the MTV leverage was more apparent than real. A few of the GOP dissenters have voiced a desire to use an MTV to try to topple McCarthy, but they have not done so for a simple reason: They would lose. Democrats, who just saw that McCarthy could make a reasonable ask and negotiate with President Biden in good faith, have little reason to cooperate with the bomb-throwers in the GOP conference to bring him down. McCarthy has no obvious rival with broader backing among Republicans. And so, while having to re-win his post would certainly be distracting and potentially embarrassing, McCarthy made the deal because he was confident that his speakership could withstand the blowback from the right.

The dissidents have now shown that they can block legislation that, unlike the debt-limit deal, has only Republican backing. That is surely giving Republican leaders pause. In our current hyperpartisan era, the majority party generally gives much of its attention to framing and passing bills that embody its talking points and put its political opponents on the back foot. Two of the bills in the rule recently voted down fit that mold to a tee, as they go on the offensive in the gas-stove controversy that has recently inflamed the nation. McCarthy and other GOP leaders will be sorely disappointed if they cannot advance such bills.

And yet the dissenters’ leverage here should not be overstated. In the current political configuration, in which Democrats control the Senate and the White House, the chance that any bill passed by House Republicans on a straight party-line vote will become law is precisely zero. Failing to pass these bills is thus disappointing as a matter of messaging, but it makes very little practical difference. Republicans can still say that they championed their favorite causes, like gas stoves, and that the reason they were unable to pass legislation was Democratic opposition, and that will still be true.

If McCarthy’s detractors wanted to become a more potent force for reshaping the House, they would need to have some positive agenda that enticed Democrats. At that point, the three seats on the Rules Committee that seemed to be their ace in the hole might come good — three dissident Republicans plus four Democrats could outvote six loyalist Republicans. But it isn’t clear that McCarthy’s Republican detractors had or have any plans to make common cause with Democrats on . . . well, anything.

Meanwhile, McCarthy has a need to work with Democrats on must-pass legislation, including this fall’s spending bills and the national defense authorization bill. There is no reason that, together, they cannot repeat the debt-limit performance and move legislation against the wishes of some dissenting Republicans. And if McCarthy finds his party unable to push partisan messaging bills across the line, it is entirely possible that he might turn his efforts toward improving the prospects for bipartisan coalition-building. In other words, if McCarthy’s critics aren’t careful, they might push him permanently into the bipartisan-dealmaking mode that has so enraged them already.

Back in the late 1950s, the Rules Committee was a formidable independent power center. Its chairman, Representative Howard W. Smith (D., Va.), was an arch-conservative who actively opposed many of his party’s policy objectives, especially on civil rights. Smith’s power to block legislation was legendary, and his prerogatives as chairman had much to do with that. But even more important was that he could work with a bipartisan group of conservative members who together could outvote Democratic liberals and advance conservative priorities. His strength was ultimately grounded in the balance of power in the chamber.

McCarthy’s critics have nothing like that kind of base of power in today’s House, which is why Bannon’s comment about “de facto Speaker Gaetz” was always so mystifying. Why would the MTV and other rules changes give these members sufficient leverage to control the House’s agenda, despite their outlier status? It never made much sense to imagine that a few dozen members could dictate the possibilities for the whole body simply by dint of their stubbornness. Historically, the Freedom Caucus had exercised most of its influence through the Republican Conference, lobbying leadership and using mechanisms like the Hastert Rule to stop legislation, most notably immigration deals, they opposed.

That isn’t to say that the rules changes that Roy and his allies secured in the speakership fight are inconsequential or useless. If McCarthy delivers on promises to allow more free-flowing debate in the chamber, including more open consideration of amendments on the House floor, that could be a great boon to ambitious policy entrepreneurs in the House and to the whole chamber’s ability to prioritize legislating. But it is the moderates in the chamber, rather than the members on either extreme, who are best positioned to take advantage of a regime in which bipartisan coalitions can advance legislation even when it does not have the enthusiastic support of party leaders. Republican moderates have so far marched in tight formation on McCarthy’s behalf, which certainly made sense in the context of a debt-limit fight in which Biden offered bupkis to entice defections. We will have to see whether they find ways to exert themselves independent of leadership in the post-Pelosi era.

Will we look back at the speakership fight of 2023 and see it as a turning point in the history of the House? There’s certainly no guarantee. It could well be that the 15 rounds of voting come to be thought of as little more than a monument to the obstinacy of Republicans in this political moment. But there is still time for members — not necessarily the original insurgents — to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the deal Kevin McCarthy was forced to make.