The 55th Speaker: Kevin McCarthy is no Nancy Pelosi — and that’s a good thing
The ascendance of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as the 55th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives may have come with all of the spontaneity of a shotgun wedding — but it finally came. McCarthy deserved better than a tortuous three-day floor fight but, then again, he is now second in line to the presidency.
Many of us have great sympathy for McCarthy, who looked like a guy caught in a feedback loop stepping on the same rake over and over again. (For the record, I opposed the floor fight, given the overwhelming support for McCarthy.) However, as is often the case in Washington, the narrative opposing these holdouts allowed for little recognition of what they achieved in McCarthy’s concessions. Indeed, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank declared McCarthy’s fate to be irrelevant: “The saboteurs won.”
Moreover, many in the media were honest about what they consider his greatest shortcoming: “Kevin McCarthy is no Nancy Pelosi.”
Some of us sincerely hope so.
While Pelosi (D-Calif.) remains the ideal of many in the media, she tolerated little public debate or dissent. She thrilled her base with such infamous performative acts as tearing up a State of the Union Address of then-President Trump. As an all-powerful speaker, she oversaw a series of party-line votes with little opportunity for amendments or even to read some bills.
Many Republicans did not want the Pelosi model of an all-powerful speaker. For these members, the agreement with McCarthy is a type of Magna Carta.
The original Magna Carta, of course, was honored primarily in the breach by King John, who immediately asked the pope to annul it. Yet it was an impressive statement of rights.
No one is seriously suggesting that the GOP agreement is the new Magna Carta, but it is meant to redefine legislative rights — and it could have tangible improvements for the House.
I have worked in the House in various roles since I was a House leadership page in the 1970s and, much later, represented the House in litigation. I’ve watched the body become less transparent, less deliberative, with every passing year.
The Framers saw the House as a powerful forum to address factions in society, a legislative crucible where different interests could be expressed and resolved in majoritarian compromise. The legislative process can inform citizens while exposing legislative proposals to public scrutiny. But that process has been largely replaced with a series of robotic, preordained votes.
Some of these concessions may change that status quo. There are provisions I do not support — yet, we should acknowledge that these changes could also improve the process to allow greater dissent and debate.
Many in the media counter that such changes reduce the speaker’s power, as if the status quo under Pelosi was the optimal legislative model. Yet some changes would empower rank-and-file members to allow for greater diversity of views — not necessarily a bad thing.
Restoring the ‘Vacate the Chair’ rule
Nancy Pelosi consolidated her power by eliminating a rule that allowed any member to make a motion to vacate the chair, a type of legislative no-confidence vote. Pelosi eliminated the one-member rule and, instead, required a majority of either party to make such a motion. Some Republicans wanted that check on the speaker to be reinstated.
Notably, what has unnerved so many in Washington is that this speakership debate was not just largely public but also unscripted. It was an actual deliberation, conducted in front of the American people. While repellent to many, it just might be something that voters could get accustomed to.
Restoring legislative review and deliberation
The GOP holdouts sought to end massive spending bills moved forward with little time to read the legislation. They want a minimum 72-hour review period and a reduction of massive omnibus bills, to allow members and the public to better understand what is being passed.
The concessions reportedly include “open rules” on all major rules bills, such as appropriations, to allow lawmakers to offer amendments on the floor. It would restore an amendment process that was gutted in recent sessions, benefiting Democrats and Republicans alike.
They would reinstate “Calendar Wednesday,” which permits committee chairs “to bring reported bills directly to the House floor for consideration under an open amendment process, and reform the process by ensuring the same 72-hour notice that is required on all other measures is provided.”
For years, some of us have called for smaller bills and more deliberation. Massive bills are a way to hide personal perks and pork projects under fraudulent packaging like the “Inflation Reduction Act” that had little to do with inflation. The omnibus bill recently pushed through the House and Senate is an example of this abusive, opaque process. It was a collection of 7,200 earmarks and pork projects, including tens of millions for libraries for the papers of a couple retiring senators; five senators grabbed half a billion dollars for their favorite colleges. You had to swallow it whole or kill any spending bill.
Reinstate budget and tax procedures
Members want to restore the ability to reduce runaway spending and control increasing budgets and taxes. While one can disagree with some of the provisions, these members are clearly serious about gaining control over the budget. They would reinstate the “three-fifths supermajority in the House to approve any increases in tax rates” and require the Congressional Budget Office to analyze bills’ impacts on inflation.
They also would restore the “cut-as-you-go” (CUTGO) rule, which requires spending increases to be offset by equal or greater cuts in mandatory spending.
They would repeal the “Gephardt Rule,” which treats the debt limit as increased upon passage of a budget resolution. That rule allows members to avoid public debate over increasing a national debt that now stands at over $31 trillion. And they would restore the “Holman Rule” from 1876, permitting members to make targeted cuts impacting federal agency functions and salaries.
These are measures designed to control federal spending — a shock to a system that has abandoned any semblance of fiscal responsibility under both parties.
Rebelling members pushed for a committee to investigate the FBI and its continuing scandals. I previously called for the creation of a new “Church Committee,” which will be established under Speaker McCarthy.
They also demand commitment to oversight in areas long ignored by Democrats, including the threats posed by China. The House Ethics Committee would have a new process allowing complaints from the public.
All of this challenges a status quo which seems inviolate to many in the media.
Yes, there are demands in the concessions that some of us do not favor. However, we should be honest about the status quo: Today’s legislative system is a mockery of the deliberative process, characterized by runaway spending, blind voting and perfunctory debates. You can dislike or denounce the holdouts while still admitting they have a point — Congress has got to change.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.