Under new management
House Speaker Mike Johnson faces a tightrope walk in Congress
When lawmakers elected Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., as the 56th speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in a 220-209 vote on Wednesday afternoon, it ended an almost monthlong internal Republican impasse in the search for new leadership.
“My office is going to be known for members being more involved and having more influence in our processes. … We owe that to the people,” Johnson said in his first address as speaker. “Our system of government is not a perfect system. It’s got a lot of challenges, but it’s still the best one in the world.”
While Johnson’s election has enabled the House to return to work, the newly minted speaker inherits the same challenges that plagued his predecessor: a razor-thin, five-member Republican majority; a looming government shutdown; and several overdue legislative priorities. In addition, Johnson finds himself thrown into deep water as one of the House’s most inexperienced speakers in American history.
He has his work cut out for him.
Since passing a temporary government funding package on Sept. 30, the House—and the rest of the federal government—has been operating on borrowed time. On Nov. 17, that temporary funding will run out, raising the threat of another shutdown.
The funding issue has been at the heart of Republican expectations for a speaker. Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., won the gavel in part by promising he would avoid passing omnibus spending packages and instead return the chamber to approving the 12 separate appropriations bills that are supposed to fund the government. He later lost the gavel after he proposed circumventing that process temporarily to keep the government open.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., McCarthy’s loudest detractor, said that a commitment to traditional appropriations was exactly what he’d been looking for in the next speaker.
“[Johnson] talked about single-subject spending bills being the organizing principle of the House of Representatives,” Gaetz told reporters on Tuesday night, following Johnson’s nomination.
“That is what I have been fighting for since January, and it’s the reason Kevin McCarthy was vacated.”
Yet the appropriations bills take time, negotiation, and compromise. With just 22 days left on the clock, many onlookers think it’s an unlikely feat.
“It seems to me that with so little time left … what you’re going to need is another [temporary spending package],” said Jim Curry, the director of graduate studies at the University of Utah’s political science department. “But I think Johnson will have backing from both sides to do that as long as he’s willing to subsequently at least try to do the 12 separate spending bills.”
For now, some conservative members tentatively agree. I asked Rep. Marcus Molinaro, R-N.Y., what would happen if Johnson had to punt the deadline by passing another temporary spending package. Would Republicans stand by their new leader if it came to that?
“Remember, I participated in the negotiations that restarted the single-subject-appropriations bills process,” Molinaro said. “I think jump-starting that, working harder, working longer, being committed to moving those bills forward, considering amendments … will buy him goodwill. There might be a need for some breathing room.”
Molinaro stressed that he wouldn’t put words into the speaker’s mouth as to whether that’s a plan in the works. But he said he believes other Republicans would likely support such an approach.
There’s more to the challenge as well. Curry points out that whatever the House passes must also survive the Democrat-controlled Senate and win the signature of President Joe Biden.
“I don’t know the speaker—he hasn’t been in leadership,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland. “My hope is he will have the House be the body he says he wants it to be: a body that respects one another, that works together, that compromises with one another. After all, we’re half of the House.”
If Johnson leans too far into the most conservative demands of Republicans, he risks an impassable bill. If he compromises too much, he could find himself in the same situation that sank McCarthy.
With just six years under his belt since becoming a member of Congress in 2017, Johnson finds himself in a difficult situation with little experience to fall back on. Johnson’s elevation to speaker is historically fast.
“We haven’t had a speaker with this little experience on Capitol Hill in a very, very long time—certainly not in our lifetimes,” Curry said.
Curry suggested it won’t be a smooth transition. Former House Speaker John Boehner came in with a clean slate and then, at the end of his time in office, worked to “clean out the barn” for incoming Speaker Paul Ryan, checking off thorny agenda items before transferring power. Johnson, by contrast, comes at the 11th hour when many of the year’s legislative priorities still need to be completed in under two months.
“He doesn’t have the experience of doing these high-level negotiations and so it’s going to be new to him,” Curry said. “And that doesn’t mean he’s incapable—the thing is I guess we will find out if he has the chops to be that kind of negotiator.”