WASHINGTON — California Speaker Kevin McCarthy won his job by bowing to the demands of a group of far-right Republican dissidents on how the House operates, effectively reducing his own power while increasing his own.

The prolonged grassroots battle that led to his election on Saturday morning was a historic and tumultuous start to the 118th Congress, but it’s conveniently lost sight of why any of this really matters. holds, which was beyond the engaging personal and political drama of the Congress. Week.

Democrats, after all, still control the Senate and the White House. The hard-right group opposing Mr. McCarthy’s elevation makes up only about 10 percent of the House Republican conference. How big of a problem can GOP messiness be in one chamber of Congress?

In fact, the few concessions Mr. McCarthy agreed to would make the practical business of running the House almost impossible. It could be left unable to do basic things like fund the government or finance the federal debt. To the dissidents, that was the point. For the country, this could have some serious consequences.

Here’s a look at how the House works, and how things can break down.

The Speaker, on behalf of the majority, controls the House floor. The main tool for doing this is the Rules Committee, which sets the terms of legislative debate, including which bills may be considered, for how long and – importantly – which amendments may be introduced. Can and by whom.

As part of Mr McCarthy’s deal with the dissidents, he agreed to allow the ultra-conservative wing of the party approval power over a third of the panel’s Republican members. In fact, it would give the faction the ability to block any legislation it didn’t like from the floor, by banding together with Democrats on the panel, who are certain to oppose all Republican bills.

They may also insist on gutting or otherwise amending legislation they do not like, effectively rigging the process to make it more difficult to pass. This could be especially dangerous for spending bills and any legislation to raise the federal debt limit.

Mr McCarthy insisted his caucus would still be able to function.

“Don’t judge us on how we start, see how we finish, and I think having disrupted now has really built trust with each other and learned how to work together.” Have to do it,” he told reporters, adding he was “1,000 percent” confident he would hold the speaker’s job for a two-year term.

Republicans, like the majority of each new house in the divided government, have outlined an ambitious legislative agenda that is unlikely to become law while Democrats control the Senate and the White House.

But Congress has particularly important tasks to perform: passing a dozen spending bills that keep the government fully funded and raising the statutory borrowing limit that allows the Treasury Department to finance federal debt. gives. If it cannot pass funding legislation, the government will shut down. If it cannot raise the debt limit, the government may reach its first debt default.

Those tasks were already going to be tough with a slim Republican majority and a far-right faction bent on reducing spending and the debt. Mr McCarthy’s concessions only made it difficult – and potentially impossible.

The dissidents won his commitment to open spending bills to unlimited amendments, effectively allowing them to veto or filibuster such legislation with the proposed changes. This could make it exceedingly difficult to pass any appropriations measures, which require the approval of both chambers before going to the president’s desk.

Republicans also extracted a promise from McCarthy that any measure to raise the cap on borrowing to finance the federal debt would be accompanied by fiscal reforms that included deep spending cuts, possibly including Social Security and Medicare. The Biden administration and Democrats have said they would never accept such proposals, making the loan exposure highly likely.

There are at least a few Republicans who may be inclined to vote for spending bills and debt ceiling increases, not wanting to see a government shutdown or debt default, with Mr. McCarthy potentially among them. They would have an incentive to work with Democrats on bipartisan deals that could make it through the Senate and onto President Biden’s desk.

But over the past few decades, Republican speakers have followed an unofficial but hard-and-fast rule — known as the Hastert rule for the former GOP speaker who established it, J. Dennis Hastert — that put in place no such law. What does not have the support of the majority of the majority.

That means if conservatives aren’t on board, a bipartisan deal may never see the light of day.

Nevertheless, more pragmatic Republicans – such as Representatives Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania – have acknowledged the realities of the need to negotiate spending bills with Democratic senators, and have suggested they try to pass compromise bills into law. Will work to help.

As the presiding officer of the House, the Speaker has wide-ranging powers in the House, including a great deal of control over what motions may be considered and which members are recognized. But the right-wing faction that opposed Mr. McCarthy’s candidacy dropped their opposition only after he agreed to reinstate a rule that left him virtually no room for maneuver.

The provision, known as a “motion to vacate the chair”, allows a single legislator to force a vote that would oust the speaker. Its existence has inspired previous generations of the House Freedom Caucus, including former Ohio Speaker John A. It was his successor as speaker, Paul D. Ryan’s head also hung ominously. Former California Speaker Nancy Pelosi ended the procedural threat when she retrieved the gavel in 2019.

Its resurgence now means Mr McCarthy could be removed immediately if he ever angered his hard-right faction.

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