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The tempo of disruption on Capitol Hill has reached a fever pitch since former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, was forced out earlier this month by a small group of GOP lawmakers.
The ensuing spectacle has turned Republican against Republican even as their inability to unite around a new speaker inches the country towards another federal funding deadline on Nov. 17 and could pose a potential electoral threat for Republicans going into 2024.
According to some of McCarthy’s chief critics, the tumult unleashed by the former speaker’s ouster is the price that must be paid to reform Congress’s spending habits. But many congressional scholars predict October’s prolonged speaker’s race could do the opposite.
“If anything, I think the main consequence is that it’s going make it harder for whoever the next speaker is to fix the possibility of a shutdown in November or December,” said Jeremy Pope, a senior scholar with Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
Why was McCarthy removed?
The architect behind McCarthy’s ouster, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., traces the former speaker’s demise back to agreements he made to get elected in January.
During that record-breaking speaker’s race, extending over five days and 15 rounds of voting, McCarthy promised to return the annual budget process to “regular order,” Gaetz said, where each spending bill is passed individually before the Sept. 30 deadline without resorting to a short-term continuing resolution or omnibus spending package.
When the House failed to pass all 12 appropriations bills by the end of the fiscal year and McCarthy broke procedural agreements in advancing a bipartisan short-term funding bill, Gaetz, and seven others, including Andy Biggs and Eli Crane of Arizona, and Nancy Mace of South Carolina, said it was their duty to remove the speaker.
Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former chief economist for the House Committee on Commerce, said McCarthy would likely still hold the speaker’s gavel if he had passed the House’s spending bills on time.
A return to the budgeting process of 30 years ago is necessary to address the country’s “out of control spending,” said Furchtgott-Roth. However, he said the eight Republicans who sided with the entire House Democratic Caucus to oust McCarthy have done little to advance the cause of fiscal responsibility because they had “no clear plan B.”
“What we’ve seen is there doesn’t yet appear to be someone in the Republican conference that can get 217 votes and what this has done is it’s really brought to a standstill the legislative process,” Furchtgott-Roth said.
Amid the failed campaigns of House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, the House has remained without a speaker for three weeks and in that time has been unable to pass any additional spending bills or aid for embattled Israel or Ukraine.
“It’s an embarrassment and it’s not a healthy situation that they can’t seem to get a speaker because without a speaker they can’t do any legislating,” Furchtgott-Roth said.
Is there a silver lining to the prolonged speaker’s fight?
Where the group of eight Republicans may have succeeded, according to Furchtgott-Roth, is in incentivizing future Republican leadership, including McCarthy’s replacement, to take a return to regular order in the spending process more seriously.
“I think they will have a very strong incentive to get all the appropriations bills done early,” Furchtgott-Roth said. “So, I think that would be a positive outcome.”
Furchtgott-Roth said he believes whoever the next speaker is will be “very reluctant to agree to a continuing resolution because (they will) recognize they will lose the speakership immediately if they do that.”
However, Pope, a professor of political science at BYU, said he thinks the fear of compromise among Republican Party leadership will lead to gridlock and conservative policy failing to become law.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult for the next speaker to make a deal with Democrats on the budget. And I think that means it’s going to be more likely that we have a shutdown than not,” Pope said.
While the data is unclear on whether government shutdowns impact the electoral outcomes of Republican politicians, Pope said, they typically get the blame.
Speaker’s battle: solution or symptom?
Regardless of the electoral consequences, the current speaker’s fight appears to be just another instance of how divisions among Republican lawmakers are making it more difficult for the party to govern in a unified way, according to James Curry, the director of graduate studies in political science at the University of Utah.
“It’s less of just pure chaos,” Curry says, “and more like a public manifestation of problems that have been bubbling up for some time now.”
The weekslong slog to elect a new speaker lays bare the divisions between more radical and more establishment lawmakers, Curry said, adding it might also hint at the motivations driving those who voted to remove McCarthy.
According to Curry, the case being made by lawmakers like Gaetz leaves out the fact that working against party leadership to tank whatever comes out of the appropriations committees is what most often delays the spending process and makes it impossible to make incremental reform to how Congress allocates taxpayer dollars.
In divided government, spending cuts and procedural changes can only be enacted if they carry with them concessions to the other side, he said.
“It turns out when you only control one of the three institutions of American national government, you control the House but you don’t control the Senate or the White House, you’re not going to get everything you want,” Curry said. “When you control less, you’re going to get less. It’s just they are not willing to accept that possibility.”
Will Congress come together to avoid a government shutdown?
Curry said the GOP’s best hope is that the vast majority of the conference becomes so tired of the antics of a select few members that they choose to proceed with electing a speaker and passing spending bills without their votes.
House Republicans met Monday evening for a candidate forum to hear from the eight hopefuls for the chamber’s top leadership position. Multiple rounds of secret-ballot votes will take place in a closed-door GOP meeting Tuesday to narrow the field to just one individual who will becomes the party’s third nominee for speaker in as many weeks.
This candidate must then secure a majority in a full-House floor vote later this week — something none of the party’s three most prominent members, McCarthy, Scalise or Jordan, could do.
Furchtgott-Roth says he thinks there’s still a scenario where House Republicans can get all 12 appropriations bills passed before federal funding expires. “But the window to make that happen is closing,” he said, adding that any bill passed by the House would need to be reconciled with Democrats in the Senate.