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Everything you should know about the House speakership battle

Four political scientists have a ‘good chat’ about what happened – and what comes next.

Photo of Kevin McCarthy courtesy of USDA Forest Service photo by Tanya E. Flores; U.S. Capitol courtesy of © dkfielding; via Canva.com.

When I wrote recently about how the House could remove its Speaker, I did not expect it would happen! But here we are. For the first time in House history, lawmakers voted to remove their speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) – who has now, in a 180-degree turn, offered to be drafted into the position again. Republicans are vetting speaker candidates, but it’s anyone’s guess who will be elected or how many ballots it will take. What drove the House to this point? Why haven’t previous party factions dumped a speaker? And what challenges lie ahead for the next House speaker?  

To tackle these questions, I’ve gathered a group of top-notch legislative scholars to chat about it, as they are uniquely situated to think about the bigger picture. 

Ruth Bloch Rubin is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and an expert on legislative institutions, political parties, and congressional factions. Matt Glassman is senior fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute, and an expert on House rules and procedural and appropriations politics. Molly Reynolds is senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and an expert on legislative institutions, especially their rules and budget processes.    

Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Sarah Binder: Welcome everyone. Ruth – you’re up first! Everyone likes to mention that House members have only once before voted on a resolution to declare the speakership vacant. That was Speaker “Czar” Joseph Cannon in 1910, and he survived the vote. What’s more, as you’ve written in Building the Bloc (Cambridge University Press, 2017), Cannon tangled extensively with a party faction seeking to limit his authority as speaker. Is this a good historical analogy for understanding today’s Republican factions? Or is there something different about McCarthy’s hardline opponents?

Ruth Bloch Rubin: The search for historical analogies is always hard when something is unprecedented. That said, the Cannon revolt has to be the closest case to what we’ve just seen. Perhaps the most basic point of comparison is that both McCarthy and Cannon clearly (and inconveniently) alienated enough of their members to jeopardize their posts. But while McCarthy lost majority support because he was intent on keeping the government up and running, Cannon ran afoul of his conference because of less prosaic disagreements about tariff and regulatory policy. 

As to the procedural mechanics, there are some notable differences between the two episodes. While Cannon knew members of his conference were unhappy and even plotting against him, he wasn’t expecting a direct confrontation of the type McCarthy knew was on the table. That’s because he had made it easier to make a motion to vacate the chair as one of the concessions he offered conservatives in return for their votes to win the speakership. So one might have expected that McCarthy would have had a plan in the works to counter a motion to vacate, were one introduced. Cannon, ironically, was better prepared. When the insurgents offered a motion to reduce the power of the speakership, he did them one better, challenging the insurgents to  vacate the chair, which split their cross-party coalition with Democrats because they couldn’t agree on a replacement.  

But perhaps the biggest difference between the two episodes is the amount of preparation that went into the respective leadership challenges. Progressive insurgents in the Cannon era planned their attack for years – meeting together in secret, drafting rules reform packages, debating their merits, talking with Democrats about the need for a cross-party alliance. All of the things that you generally think are necessary to unseat a leader. 

It’s early, here, but from what is being reported, it doesn’t seem like quite as much preparation went into challenging McCarthy. Of course, some among McCarthy’s detractors were frustrated by his leadership for a while and they have acknowledged spending time together, debating what could be done about the situation. But it isn’t clear that anyone ever had a concrete plan beyond making a motion to vacate – no agreed-upon replacement, for instance. In fact, as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has said, he didn’t even know if they had the votes. We might conclude that one indication of McCarthy’s weakness as a speaker was how little planning had to go into his removal.

I think the other big takeaway from the McCarthy and Cannon episodes is that procedural politics can create strange coalitions – like here, where you had members of the Freedom Caucus voting alongside a moderate from the Republican Governance Group and the entire Democratic minority! That’s got to be some kind of record.

Molly Reynolds: So one thing that seems true here is that the rebels aren’t necessarily policy motivated; I think there’s a good case to be made that they are motivated in large part by a desire for attention. How does that compare to the Cannon episode?

Bloch Rubin: I think that’s right. But let’s not give the progressive insurgents too much credit! There were some members then, too, who saw the fight against Cannon as an opportunity to raise their own profiles and used the progressive press to generate attention. And that penchant for headlines was sometimes a sticking point with the more committed members of the anti-Cannon group – at least until they figured out how to harness that love for publicity in ways that benefit their cause. Perhaps the problem is that Gaetz and his colleagues aren’t interested in using their publicity to promote a shared goal; they want it to fundraise. 

So this time around, the dog caught the bus

Bloch Rubin: With the caveat that no one really knows just how much planning went into this yet, I think what has been reported suggests that those opposed to McCarthy weren’t thinking much beyond getting rid of him. They didn’t seem to have a replacement candidate in mind, they didn’t seem sure of their numbers, and they hadn’t spent that much time trying to get other Republicans on board with their plan. That’s quite different from how the progressives approached their insurgency against Cannon. In the run up to their challenge, they tried to make the case to their colleagues and the broader public that Cannon’s powers were really too great, even for standpat Republicans who supported his speakership and liked what he was using powers to accomplish. 

A separate question is why moderate Republicans weren’t able to save McCarthy. Gaetz had been vocal in his desire to oust the speaker, so why couldn’t they find a way to work with moderate Democrats to save McCarthy? Reports from inside the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of about 30 members from each party, suggest that some of the group’s Democratic members were willing to negotiate over rules reforms that McCarthy and moderate Republicans might have wanted anyway and that would have made moderates in both parties better off. But it didn’t happen. Republicans in the group have blamed their counterparts for blindly backing Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). The Democrats say moderate Republicans were never serious about working across the aisle.

Reynolds: One big challenge here today is that McCarthy’s most vocal critics, and the ones who have thus far proven they are willing to break with his leadership, are on the right flank. They have no real interest in, nor could they credibly commit to, making a deal with Democrats. And the folks in the Republican conference who might be interested in a cross-party deal don’t share a single motivation for doing so. Some, like the Republicans in Biden districts, might be electorally motivated, while others – such as the few remaining “institutionalists” – are motivated by a desire for stability. The lack of a single set of interests makes this harder.

Matt Glassman: Yes. There was no real coalition to bring down McCarthy in a deep, organized sense. The Democrats were faced with a vote on the floor: yes, no, or present. They had to take a position on the matter, because even not voting affects the outcome. Compare this to a potential coalition of Democrats and Freedom Caucus members signing a discharge petition, which with sufficient support could extract a measure from committee; that would never happen, because the Democrats and Freedom Caucus don’t agree substantively. It also requires positive action; you aren’t forced into a choice the way you are in a recorded vote on the floor, because deciding not to sign a discharge petition is not viewed as making a political choice. This is one reason some GOP lawmakers are suggesting changes to the motion to vacate that would make it harder to advance the motion to a vote. An expedited discharge petition, for example, could require a majority to sign a petition to advance the motion to the floor, rather than the current rule that allows a single member to force the House to consider and vote on a resolution to depose the speaker.

So where was the Problem Solvers’ Caucus in all this? I mean clearly, there was a problem to be solved and – in theory, at least – a cross-party coalition at the center of the House might have solved it.

Reynolds: The Problem Solvers were probably the best-organized possible coalition to keep McCarthy in power, with existing relationships and infrastructure in line with the kind of preparation that Ruth mentioned having been done in advance of the revolt against Cannon. In this case, when push came to shove, the Democrats in the group didn’t choose to save McCarthy. I think that illustrates just how hard it is to buck the pull of one’s own party – especially when, as Matt points out, they were being presented with a yes/no/present option. It wasn’t like, as an initial matter, they could affirmatively vote for a different candidate.

RBR: The other problem for the Problem Solvers is that they aren’t really set up, institutionally, to hold people to a negotiated position. They’re a forum for discussion, but they lack enforcement mechanisms to keep people together once they’ve reached some kind of agreement. So even if the miraculous happened and some Democrats were willing to play ball, chances are the Problem Solvers wouldn’t be able to hold them to it. 

So Matt, shifting gears slightly, I’ve seen you tweet about McCarthy’s lack of a “procedural majority” – an old term coined by political scientist Chuck Jones in 1968. What’s a “procedural majority” and what’s it got to do with McCarthy’s troubles this year? Will the fragility of the GOP procedural majority be a problem for the next speaker?

Glassman: A procedural majority, in the classic definition, is the majority that elects the House leadership, adopts the House rules, and backs the leadership so it can set the floor agenda in the House. You can differentiate it from a “substantive majority,” which is the votes needed to pass a particular piece of legislation.

Almost always in the House, the procedural majority consists of members of the majority party. The important point is that these members vote for the party position on procedural matters – what bills to take up, what rules to take them up under – even if they are substantively opposed to the legislation.

They do this because the long-term benefits they receive from the party – committee assignments, consideration of bills they like, and the log-roll of other party members procedurally supporting stuff too – outweighs the downside of sometimes having a bill on the floor they don’t actually like. Leaders usually accept it if you have to vote against their bills, but they traditionally demand you vote with them on procedural votes. It’s a big no-no to defect, and party members rarely do – in part because you will be an outcast, but also because unless you have enough friends to go along, you still lose.

At least, that was the case until this Congress. The narrow GOP margin means any five GOP members could wield the balance of power and threaten to undo the procedural majority. And that’s what they did – voting against bringing three different appropriations measures to the floor in the past three months. And it paralyzed the leadership. Whatever the powers of the speaker might be, they are nothing if she doesn’t have a procedural majority backing her agenda.

Reynolds: If they were willing to deny him a procedural majority, then why go all the way and get rid of him?

Glassman: My view is the motion to vacate has always had less teeth than people think, simply because if five Republicans declared they were never voting for another McCarthy rule, they would have effectively accomplished the same thing and forced him out. What the motion to vacate does give you is a grander spectacle, and more drama for the consumption of the rebels’ media and voter constituencies. After he signaled his intent to offer the resolution to vacate the office of the speaker, Gaetz held a press conference on the Capitol steps attended by what looked to be dozens of reporters and numerous TV cameras. If you are in it for the attention, the motion to vacate is hard to beat. It also shows off your willingness to play the most extreme hardball. That’s a brand Gaetz and his allies like to burnish, since one of their main charges against the speaker is that he’s unwilling to do the same against the House Democrats, the Senate, and the president.

So Matt, are you saying that the next speaker needs to do more than win one vote, one time? 

Glassman: Yes, whoever is the new speaker will need a settlement in the party that builds a durable coalition of 218 (well, 217 for now) GOP votes to back them on procedural matters, day in and day out. This is why McCarthy couldn’t really win by getting the Dems to help him. Unless they were going to form a permanent new procedural majority with him, the problem just returns on the very next procedural vote. In effect, every vote on every rule is a test of the procedural coalition. So the next speaker needs to either come out of the election with a solid procedural majority or face the same difficulties McCarthy had faced since the debt limit deal last spring. 

So Molly, Matt makes the point that McCarthy couldn’t really win if he had to depend on Democrats’ votes. As it turns out, no Democrat stepped in to save him. Why did Democrats oppose McCarthy in lockstep?   

Reynolds: There are two elements at play here: some dynamics that are specific to McCarthy, and some that are more structural in nature. 

In terms of McCarthy specifically, I think it’s pretty clear that he managed to anger just about every element of the Democratic caucus in one or more ways. Some of that stems from the events of January 6, 2021, after which he privately condemned Trump but publicly ultimately embraced him. Some of it stems from his willingness to immediately jettison the terms of the debt limit deal. I think there are some Democrats who are still mad about how, over the summer, he let the very bipartisan defense authorization bill get packed with conservative policy riders, making it hard for Dems to vote for it. They were also angry about his handling of the continuing resolution to fund the government: bringing a measure to the floor without Ukraine funding at the very last minute, giving Democrats very little time to read it before the vote was called. For the various factions of the Democratic caucus, one or more of these events led them to see McCarthy as fundamentally untrustworthy.

More structurally, though, it’s not clear that McCarthy, or any speaker in his position, could – or would want to – keep any deals that he might have tried to cut with the Democrats to keep him in power, or at least stay his execution. And as Matt points out above, a procedural majority has to be durable. Going back to Democrats repeatedly, to stay in the speaker’s chair, isn’t a long-term solution for stabilizing the speakership.

So here we are. Under a post 9/11 House rule, when the House elected McCarthy in January 2023, he filed a secret list of replacement speakers with the House clerk. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) – who ironically stepped off the party leadership track in 2018 – was first on the list. Over the past week, a bipartisan consensus has emerged that McHenry’s powers as an interim speaker are limited: His sole authority is to lead the House to electing a new speaker. Towards that end, McHenry hasn’t referred bills to committee and has forsworn legislative business. In other words, apart from booting two top Democrats from their U.S Capitol hideaways, McHenry seems to be little more than a glorified clerk. So what gives?

Reynolds: From an institutional perspective, this is one of the most interesting – and, I think, important – elements of this whole episode. It’s actually unprecedented in a way that few things in Congress are. We don’t often see the setting of precedent in real time. Abstracting from the immediate situation to the kind of scenario that the rule was originally envisioned to address, the narrow reading is normatively troubling. If Congress had in fact just faced an actual mass incapacitating event, which the rule was designed for, I think we would want a speaker pro tem who’s more than just a clerk – certainly one who could put measures on the floor to address whatever brought on the crisis in question!

Glassman: From a textual point of view, it’s quite unclear how much power McHenry has. House Rule I, Clause 8(3)(b) is not specific as to whether he has the power of the clerk, a designated speaker pro tem, an elected speaker pro tem, or something else. But the historical record is quite a bit more clear: Contemporary writing and commentary surrounding the 2003 rules change pretty clearly indicate the members thought they were creating a very weak speaker pro tem.

Now, that doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s up to the House to decide what its rules mean, and it can change or reinterpret them at any time. From a normative point of view, it seems bizarre to think you are improving the continuity of Congress by replacing the clerk with a member who is as powerless as the clerk. In my view, McHenry should have the power roughly equivalent to a designated speaker pro tem – the ability to call up legislation, recognize members for suspensions, and keep the bill referral process running. But the consensus is he can’t. I would have the House change that.

There are also details to be sorted out. McHenry has to take actions, and those actions, if acquiesced to by the House, will become precedent. For instance, immediately after getting the gavel, he recessed the House at the call of the chair under House Rule 1, Clause 12(a) authority. That’s not a power the clerk would have in that spot, but no one objected, and now a soft precedent is set. That’s arguably part of guiding us toward the election. But he also removed Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) from their Capitol offices under the House Rule I, Clause 3 power of the speaker to control the House wing of the Capitol. That seems far afield from the election, and suggests the process of on-the-fly decisions in a truly novel scenario may set some precedents for future interim speakers than the House originally intended.

Why have party leaders on both sides seemingly endorsed this narrow view that the interim speaker can only take steps towards electing a new speaker? Are lawmakers simply deferring to the nonpartisan parliamentarian? Or is it also in both party leaders’ interests to hamstring an interim speaker? Either way, we’re so used to congressional hardball – playing for keeps – that we’ll need a new term (“reverse hardball”?) for this decision to leave power on the table.

Reynolds: One way to think about the choice to leave power on the table – if, ultimately, that’s what continues to happen – is in line with how the Senate has long treated its parliamentarian. There, we often see senators deferring to the parliamentarian’s interpretations in situations where some of them might want to exercise more power. That’s because it’s the easiest solution to a political challenge: they can pin the outcome on another actor. So one interpretation of what’s happening with McHenry is that he is choosing to hew very closely to the text of the rule because it, at least for now, helps maintain stability within the conference as they drive towards the election of a new speaker.

Bloch Rubin: You might imagine that there would actually be some appetite for a more vigorous interim speaker – if McHenry could clear out the barn for whoever is coming next, that might help Republicans repair their image before the midterm elections. But that would be a collective reputational benefit; there are many individual incentives to keep the interim speaker’s powers to a minimum, as Molly suggests.

Binder: It’s just so rare to find the House on untilled ground. And grateful to have you all chat with us at Good Authority to noodle our way through what it all means. Thank you everyone for a lively and thought-provoking conversation. Looking forward to more Good Chats!