Electing a new House speaker will prove difficult
While organizing Republican House members might not be as difficult as uniting anarchists, it will take some time to resolve the matter. This is because the Republican leadership and the conservative Freedom Caucus are working from separate rulebooks.
When House Speaker John Boehner found himself short of votes to assure his reelection, he turned to the House Majority leader, Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy was next in line in the Republican leadership, a selection rooted in the House custom of seniority and “going along to get along”. McCarthy had paid his dues by serving as Majority leader.
By contrast, the Tea Party-affiliated Freedom Caucus is disruptive. They want institutional changes including stripping the Speaker of many of his powers. They want to reverse the centralization of power started by former speaker Newt Gingrich and have more “bottom up” governance of the Republican Caucus.
They believe this will allow them to pass much of the conservative legislation favored by the constituents in the 40 districts that elected them. Most importantly, they would strip the power to make committee assignments from the House Republican leadership and pass it to the rank and file.
There is no reason to believe that representatives from the other 207 Republican districts will accede to these demands. Yet, there is no way that Republicans can muster the necessary 217 votes to elect the Speaker without these 40 votes.
Of course, the Republican leadership could be free of the Freedom Caucus by finding 10 willing House Democrats to end the stalemate, but this would not conform to House custom.
The potential costs
The outcome of the election for Speaker could potentially have important impacts on the economy. If the new Speaker accedes to the confrontational stance seen in 2011 and in 2013, there could be another delay in raising the debt ceiling to pay government obligations, or a refusal to pass a federal budget, resulting in a government shutdown.
Of course, this latter issue is purely symbolic, since Medicare reimbursements will continue to be paid to other doctors rendering the same medical services.
The 2011 delay in raising the debt ceiling and resulting downgrades and warnings for U.S. sovereign credit ratings cost the American taxpayer $1.3 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The Dow also dropped about 2000 points in late July and early August.
Standard and Poor’s estimated that the 2013 shutdown reduced fourth quarter GDP growth by at least 0.6%, or about $24 billion. The Congressional Budget office estimated that $1.00 of reduced federal spending resulted in a loss of GDP between $0.40 and $1.90. Roughly 850,000 federal workers a day were furloughed. It was an expensive exercise for a country still rebounding from 2008.
Wall Street is already rattled by the fracas over the nomination of a Speaker.
Since Speaker Boehner has agreed to serve until his replacement is elected, he could remain for a period of a few months. If a replacement isn’t found, he could be reelected, but this is unlikely since the Freedom Caucus sees his demise as a real victory. In any event, being a lame duck will limit his power.
Congressman Paul Ryan, the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is currently seen as a viable candidate because of his stature in the party and his acceptability in the Freedom Caucus.
Yet, Ryan would remain a bad match for the job. Ryan’s forte is policy and not politics so he wouldn’t naturally take to the Speaker position.
More importantly, the demands of the Freedom Caucus, if met, would so strip the role of its powers that he’d be ineffective even if he enjoyed invoking party discipline. Ryan also has a record of creative compromise that would be unacceptable to the Freedom Caucus.
Some of the others being mentioned like Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Congressman Trey Gowdy, or Congressman Daniel Webster could catch fire but this has yet to happen.
Some contend that Congressman Kline might win short-term approval since he plans to retire in a year. This would be a variation of the Boehner lame duck scenario.
The not so conventional reality is that nobody really wants this job (nor should they). Ryan is right not to want the job because it will be as hard for him as it was for Boehner. If anyone does take the job and fails to accomplish the impossible, they will be blamed for the failure.
What is most telling is that House Republicans are caught up in this muddle at a time when they should be triumphant. The Republican majority of 247-188 is the highest since the 1930s. Yet this majority has failed to pass much legislation at all, and little of any significance.
The problem is that the members of the Freedom Caucus require education about the ways of Congress. The U.S. government was designed to work slowly by our founders as a check upon tyranny. It’s difficult to pass legislation because party power is geographically decentralized and party discipline is weak.
Compromise is the key to resolving differences between interests groups and between regions. In fact, seniority rules and the Speaker’s role in committee assignments function to limit the power of new members until they’re seasoned, experienced, and trusted.
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who enjoys a 68% conservative voting record from Freedom Works, summed up the views of many when he recently said that it took him four terms to get the assignment he wanted on the Appropriations Committee.
It will take some time to elect a viable Speaker.
Lawrence Katzenstein has taught at the University of New Orleans and the University of Minnesota. Through an affiliation with the Humphrey Institute he was one of the trainers for the initial Chinese WTO delegation. He has been an exchange professor at the Consolidated Universities of Shandong Province and an embedded social scientist with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He earned a B.A. in political science from CCNY and an M.A. and Ph.D in political science from Rutgers University. While at the University of Minnesota he also completed a teaching post doc in International Business.