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April 1, 2024

Who Wants to Be House Speaker?

Even if the GOP suffers no attrition before Election Day, Mike Johnson could lose his head at any time to another revolt within the party’s ranks.

Mel Brooks said it’s good to be the king — but is it good to be speaker of the House of Representatives?

You’re the most powerful legislator in Congress, if not the world, and just two heartbeats away from being president.

If you’re a Republican, though, your task is thankless and possibly hopeless.

It looks that way for Speaker Mike Johnson right now.

With the barest Republican majority in the House, another resignation or sudden death could throw control of the chamber to the Democrats and hand the speakership to Hakeem Jeffries well ahead of November’s election.

Even if the GOP suffers no attrition before Election Day, Johnson could lose his head at any time to another revolt within the party’s ranks.

House Republicans were unruly enough when they enjoyed a majority of almost 60 seats under Speaker John Boehner nearly a decade ago.

Donald Trump wasn’t a factor back then, and Barack Obama gave Republicans an opponent to unite against — yet they still couldn’t cohere as a party.

Boehner finally gave up and resigned the speakership in 2015, letting Paul Ryan take over.

The Wisconsin congressman was until then a rising star in the GOP, but after three years as speaker, he was done with politics and bowed out of Congress altogether.

Kevin McCarthy knew what he was getting into when he grabbed the gavel after Republicans most recently took back the House, but he overestimated his odds of survival.

Rebellious backbenchers overthrew him nine months into his speakership; then he, too, quit Congress.

How long will Johnson last — and who would want to succeed him?

Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise vied to replace McCarthy, but the same factional instability that prevented either of them from securing the votes they needed would have poisoned the prize even if one of them had been able to win it.

Johnson was nobody’s first choice for speaker, and that’s partly why he got the job; he wasn’t loved enough to be hated either.

But now Johnson gets the blame when the House passes continuing resolutions that keep the government open, at the cost of failing to use the threat of a shutdown to wring policy concessions from Biden.

Of course, if the speaker did allow a shutdown, he and the GOP would get blamed by the media for the mess — and probably by voters, too.

Politically it’s a lose-lose proposition for the party, though in 2011 a Republican House resolved such a standoff by limiting both domestic and defense spending with a law that came to be known as “the sequester.”

It worked — but it was equally unpopular with those House and Senate Republicans who wanted to spend more on national defense and with their Democratic counterparts who craved more money for projects at home.

Now neither party wants to try that again.

Spending is grease for the gears of Congress, which is one reason why Democrats dominated the House for 60 years from the Great Depression to the Gingrich Revolution, with only two non-consecutive two-year terms of GOP control from 1931 until 1995.

House majorities are traditionally held together by logrolling and pork-barrel spending — buying the votes of your colleagues with taxpayers’ dollars.

That approach still works well for the party of the New Deal and the Great Society; it doesn’t work for the party of Ronald Reagan or even Donald Trump.

Conservative Republicans oppose drunken-sailor spending, but without it, what incentive is there for party discipline?

In the old days, challenging a speaker or a committee chairman would jeopardize the earmarks on which individual congressmen depended for paying off voters back in their districts.

It was a corrupt system, and conservatives were determined to reform it.

After Republicans won the House for the first time in four decades in the 1994 midterms, the new speaker, Newt Gingrich, set about changing the way Congress worked.

But 30 years later, government is bigger than ever, and deficits are dizzying.

Weakening House committees had the paradoxical effect of concentrating power in leadership and making the speaker more important in setting the majority’s policy direction — which only turned the speaker into the focus of every member’s discontents and created stronger opposition to him within the party.

The solution to the otherwise intractable problem every Republican speaker now faces begins with putting more responsibility back on committees.

The speaker is too much of a monarch; Congress can only operate on the republican principle of divided power and mediating institutions.

Committees are the institutions that mediate between the speaker (and leadership in general) and members.

It’s good to be the king if you’re Mel Brooks.

If you’re speaker of the House of Representatives, though, take heed of Shakespeare: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”


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