Democracy or dysfunction?
GOP facing aftershocks after weeks of inner turmoil
New House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., took the gavel last week with the promise that Republicans were “ready to govern.” But first he has to govern a GOP conference so divided that it jokingly describes itself using references to the Mafia epic The Godfather.
In The Godfather, five large Italian families fight for control of the New York City underworld. In Congress, the “five families” each have their own opinions about how the House speaker should lead. For Johnson, the competing pressures could spell changes to his speakership or even a departure from the two-party system.
The largest of the Five Families is the Republican Study Committee, headed by Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma. The other families are the Main Street Caucus, which focuses on business matters, the Republican Governance Group, the Problem Solvers Caucus, and the House Freedom Caucus. Each one has different membership rules. Republicans and Democrats can join the Problem Solvers Caucus, but only if someone from the opposite party also does at the same time. Members can belong to multiple caucuses.
During his speakership, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California met once a week with the leaders of each of the five families and also designated Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., to lead the Elected Leadership Committee to listen to the concerns of the families. With Republicans holding only a four-vote majority in the House, any disgruntled family could upend the speaker’s agenda.
The House Freedom Caucus is generally considered to be farther right-wing. It was formed as an offshoot of the Republican Study Committee for dissatisfied members. These caucus members have complained that the House speaker wields too much power that should be distributed among lawmakers. This is the group that gained concessions from McCarthy, including lowering the threshold for the motion to vacate to only one vote.
This vote came from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who, notably, is not in any of the five families. Weeks of chaos followed as would-be leaders also had to weigh concerns from each faction in hopes of winning the gavel.
Former Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus. But he quit it in 2015, protesting that members focused more on politicizing leadership races than addressing real reforms. Now retired, Ribble says the caucus has demonstrated a “juvenile approach to governance” in recent weeks.
“They’re just in this burn-it-down mode,” Ribble told me, “thinking that they’ve got something better while simultaneously never [saying] what ‘better’ is. They never asked the question, what’s next after what’s next. Matt Gaetz blew up the speakership without any plan.”
Gaetz defended his legislative actions, calling McCarthy the wrong leader for the party.
“I made two promises upon the motion to vacate the chair: that the incoming speaker would be more conservative and that the incoming speaker would be more honest,” Gaetz told me from the Speaker’s Lobby this week. “People can have their quarrels with the tactics that I’ve deployed. But undeniably, we have a speaker who is more conservative and more honest, so in that way, all went according to plan.”
Each faction wants to enforce a different priority. Ribble says too many members are jeopardizing the majority by demanding absolute alignment instead of compromise. But he agrees with a main House Freedom Caucus tenet that the House speaker has too much power. He said the last month shows leadership should reinvent the role.
“The speaker shouldn’t lead the conference, the majority leader should,” Ribble said. “The speaker should just be there calling balls and strikes. You’ve got a majority leader and a minority leader; let them do the party stuff, and let the speaker just keep the clock running on time.”
Hern, who leads the 173-member Republican Study Committee, says this might indeed be the future of the speakership. New House Speaker Mike Johnson chaired the Republican Study Committee when Hern first joined.
“I know the work he did. He kept everybody involved,” Hern told WORLD. “He was all about decentralizing power then … and that’s what you’re going to see with the conference going forward.”
But while he supports a power shift, Hern said the focus should turn to official House committees, not the informal caucuses or families.
“I haven’t talked to the speaker about this, but I think that we need to go back and respect the input from our committee chairman and our appropriators,” Hern said. “I don’t know so much about the five families. It’s more important that he hear from the respective authorizing committees and the appropriators and that we all get back to doing our job as opposed to having separate voices coming from all the different memberships out there.”
Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, agrees that these separate voices are hampering the party from leading. He said this is unsustainable if Republicans hope to preserve their majority.
“It’s often the case that the GOP is so busy fighting itself that it’s just difficult to run against a much more united Democratic Party,” Kosar said. “It’s been a recurrent theme for at least 15 years that there’s been this kind of rogue faction within the GOP who runs against the party and frequently views the establishment as a sellout, and that’s really been played to the hilt here.”
Ribble said he is watching the two-party system break down in real time. Rather than the factions uniting on key issues, he sees a permanent break on the horizon.
“What you’re actually seeing is a breakup of the current political parties,” Ribble said. “Whether it’ll be two parties or whether it’s going to become more parliamentarian is currently undecided. But you’re going to see that continual breakup, and on the left, as well. Nancy Pelosi’s members were willing to allow her to rule with an iron fist. And what the Freedom Caucus is saying is that the speakership has too much power, we want power devolved to members.”
Funding the government is top-of-mind for new House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has only 15 days left until the continuing resolution McCarthy passed to keep the government open runs out. McCarthy agreed to remove omnibus bills for appropriations and bring individual funding bills to the floor. That could take time that the chamber does not have. Johnson floated an idea on Thursday to give each appropriation a separate deadline, what he calls “a laddered CR,” or continuing resolution. This would give the government extra days to pass the bills but also more opportunities for a shutdown if one gets held up.
Outside the Beltway, most voters likely are not watching the internal drama too closely. But a government shutdown could hurt Republicans’ chances with voters in 2024.
“They have to unite on some priorities, move forward, and try to get some momentum as they enter the election year,” Kosar said. “Think about the GOP-held districts, the many people whose paychecks are either directly from the federal government or their contractors. When they start missing paychecks, that’s real. And they’re going to blame somebody.”
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