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Would Kevin McCarthy face a revolt as Speaker of the House? It depends on this.

- October 5, 2015

If John Boehner’s fall heralds a new period of chaos and instability, as political scientists Jeffrey Jenkins and Charles Stewart suggest, then it isn’t too soon to discuss what might happen to his successor. Although Kevin McCarthy shouldn’t rest easy yet, he is the most likely Speaker in waiting. Presuming he wins, his job security will depend heavily on one thing: the 2016 economy.

In a recent post based on a 2014 paper, I argued that Boehner’s leadership position was unstable because of the way Congress operates during a combination of extreme polarization and divided government. When there is no point taking up regular legislation because the House and President are too far apart to agree, all that is left for Congress to do is to avoid shutdowns and debt ceiling breaches.

But because a significant portion of the Republican Party is comfortable with those outcomes, the job of a Republican Speaker is to split the party rather than to unify it.  It wasn’t that Boehner lacked political skill. Quite the contrary, as Jonathan Bernstein argues. Instead, the problem was baked into the circumstances that Boehner confronted.

If the instability of Republican leadership is caused by the combination of extreme polarization and divided government, then take one away — divided government — and Republican Party leadership becomes stable again. So, McCarthy’s job security depends heavily on what happens in the 2016 presidential election.

The presidential election will hinge to a significant extent on the state of the economy, as most political scientists and political observers will attest. If the economy is weak, then Republicans will be favored to win the White House and perhaps maintain their congressional majorities. McCarthy will then wind up with unified government.

In that case, McCarthy will probably avoid a backlash of the type Boehner faced. No longer will the Speaker be forced to pass continuing resolutions to avoid the shutdowns that many in the caucus don’t mind anyway. Instead, with the expectation of presidential support, Congress will simply pass a very conservative budget that cuts social spending and taxes. If McCarthy and the rest of the leadership team are smart, they will propose a budget that is intentionally not conservative enough for the House Freedom Caucus, let them demand something, and then make a show of surrendering.  That will allow the passage of a budget with unified Republican support while allowing the House Freedom Caucus to claim victory.

The debt ceiling will need to be handled, but a return to something like the “Gephardt rule” seems likely. In their appropriations bills, the House will simply “deem” a debt ceiling increase to have passed, sufficient to cover spending for those bills. As long as the increase is both finagled and attached to a conservative budget, and McCarthy makes a show of surrendering to conservative demands, a revolt by the House Freedom Caucus seems improbable, and there will be no threat of veto. The party will be unified, or at least its roll call votes will make it look as unified as it was before 2010.

On the other hand, what if the economy is relatively strong going into the 2016 election? Democrats will continue to hold the White House, but even in a good year, they are unlikely to take the House, so McCarthy would probably retain his Speakership at least through January of 2017.  However, he would do so under the same constraints that Boehner has faced — the need to divide his own caucus. How patient would the conservative wing of his party be?  I would bet, not very. In that case, we might see further chaos and instability.

Of course, all of this presumes that a McCarthy speakership even lasts until the 2016 election. McCarthy would first need to pass spending bills and debt ceiling increases under the same constraints as Boehner — that is, he will need a bloc of Republicans to join Democrats. It is difficult to imagine a revolt against the Speaker less than a year into his term, but if Jenkins and Stewart are correct, we are in uncharted territory anyway.

Justin Buchler is associate professor of political science at Case Western University. He is the author of Hiring and Firing Public Officials: Rethinking the Purpose of Elections (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Updated Oct. 11, 2023