No matter who holds the speaker's gavel, the game has changed
The House is reflecting the turmoil in the party in America at large. The challenge for the new speaker will be how to navigate this world.
Doug Mills/ The New York Times/AP
Whomever House Republicans nominate as their new speaker – be it the much clamored-for Paul Ryan or anyone else – the levers for uniting their conference are fewer and fewer.
It feels like a brave new world in the People’s House. In the short span of two weeks, the right flank has muscled out both a speaker and a favored would-be speaker. Neither the old guard, outgoing Speaker John Boehner, nor the next generation, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, was able to control or entice the 40 to 50 hard-liners who keep having the last word.
This new political environment is decentralized on every level. Party campaign funding – as a reward or weapon – is less effective given the piles of cash available from outsiders. Those groups, too, challenge party messaging, influencing constituents through tweets and e-mails. The same is true of right-wing talk shows.
Top-down leadership in the House won’t work in such an environment, says Matt Kibbe, a former head of Freedom Works, one of the influential tea party advocacy groups that Mr. Boehner blamed for ideas like shutting down the government that he said "never had a chance."
Neither will traditional carrots and sticks. Boehner – himself a rebel once – got rid of earmarks, the special projects slipped into bills to help members in their districts. And punishments, like being kicked off of committees, simply embolden hard-liners, who are already outsiders.
Republican leaders in Congress “can grumble about the good old days, or they could figure out how the world actually works now,” says Mr. Kibbe, now a senior adviser to Concerned American Voters, a super political action committee for GOP presidential candidate and libertarian, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
What’s going on now, he says, is “a paradigm shift.”
Internal political divisions often go along with a big majority. And this particular incarnation has been forming for at least five years, taking shape in the tea party election wave of 2010 that swept the GOP to control in the House.
The House is simply reflecting the turmoil in the party in America at large. As GOP majority leader McCarthy told reporters in 2012, when comparing the House and the Senate, “the House is like stopping at a truck stop for breakfast. We are a microcosm of society, and we reflect it first.”
Tellingly, the mood in the House is also being reflected in the presidential races, where outsiders and anger dominate.
The challenge for the new speaker will be how to navigate this world. It’s not merely an academic question or one for political junkies. Decisions of national import lurk just weeks ahead.
The United States is expected to bump up against its borrowing limit, hitting the debt ceiling on Nov. 5. Authorization to spend on highways and other infrastructure expires on Oct. 30. Funding for the federal government as a whole ceases on Dec. 11.
Boehner, who has said he will stay on until a new speaker is chosen, may be able to tackle some of these issues before he leaves, working with Democrats as he has in the past. More probably, most of them will face the new speaker.
The new top dog will have to decide if he wants to be wagged by the hard-liners’ tail and stand up for the GOP position all the way “to the end,” as described by Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho, one of the founders of the hard-line Freedom Caucus. That would be the Kibbe way.
Or is there some other way?
On Friday morning, House Republicans tried to sort through the rubble from Thursday’s earthquake, caused by majority leader McCarthy’s announcement that he was not the best person to stand for speaker in the face of such a divided caucus. As members emerged from their conference room in the Capitol basement, reporters pressed them about possible new speakers, and more importantly, how that speaker would govern.
Some members want to see much more “family conversation,” as Boehner often calls difficult confabs among Republicans. They envision a discussion about political and policy strategy as well as procedural rules that govern how the conference is run. From this, a consensus candidate would emerge.
That could be a long process and presumes that consensus is possible.
Others believe a new speaker should move with haste toward Democrats on fiscal and budgetary issues ahead. Assemble a bipartisan coalition. Put a bill on the floor. Pass it. In the end, that’s the formula that works, says Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania, head of the moderate Tuesday Group coalition.
The new speaker can either go the bipartisan route and “deal with attacks on the flank,” says Congressman Dent, “or we can continue on the course that we’ve been on, and that would just make the new speaker look weak, and feckless, and ineffective.”
Dent’s course implies bypassing the hard-liners, which could be politically dangerous in this brave new world – no matter how weak a leader may look.
Sidelining hard-liners is not a strategy that Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon would recommend. “It’s always better if people feel like they had their opportunity to participate in a process that was fair,” says Congressman Walden, whose name is being mentioned as a possible speaker candidate.
Some members can never get to yes, he admits, but the point is to keep a conference together for maximum negotiating leverage.
This is basically the Boehner way – or better put, the Boehner attempt. It tries to keep a lid on a simmering pot, lifting it occasionally to let it vent.
Yet even after “debating, talking, and hashing things through,” sometimes it appears that “if you don’t get your own way, you vote ‘no,’ ” says Rep. Pat Tiberi (R) of Ohio, a Boehner ally. That is, the lid flies off, as the House is seeing now.
Should “Mother Teresa herself come back to earth and become our speaker,” this challenge won’t go away, he says.