House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Wednesday did not propose any radical policy when he released his party’s legislative priorities should it retake the majority. But his plan does suggest something truly revolutionary: an end to the Imperial Speakership.
The plan is built around four conceptual pillars. The first, titled “An Economy That’s Strong,” takes aim at the Biden administration’s record on energy, inflation and government spending, while the second, “A Nation That’s Safe,” focuses on fighting crime and combating China and other foreign adversaries. The other two, “A Future That’s Built on Freedom” and “A Government That’s Accountable,” addresses a host of topics such as education and promises oversight investigations into the administration’s alleged lapses.
Nothing in the document contains anything particularly innovative, and that’s probably both by design and smart. Genuinely creative ideas can become the lightning rod of a campaign, and the party has no need to put forward potentially controversial proposals. It only needs to gain five seats to retake the House. Why risk that by embracing something that could trump the overarching sense of malaise and unease that Republicans and independents feel?
The flip side is that the Republican leader offered no captivating concept to generate enthusiasm among voters. Prior House GOP campaign efforts have included ideas such as embracing the then-revolutionary idea of across-the-board tax cuts (1978) or congressional term limits (1994). There’s only one idea buried in the commitment’s supporting documents that could play that role this cycle: requiring employers to use the federal government’s E-Verify system to ensure that only people with a legal right to work in the United States can get a job. But there’s no indication that McCarthy intends to make the proposal a party rallying cry.
The plan also name-checks the Parents’ Bill of Rights, which would require school districts that receive federal funds to be transparent to parents about its curricular, budgetary and school safety practices. It also proposes federal retention and recruitment bonuses so that localities can hire 200,000 additional police officers. Both are good policy proposals that could prove popular on the campaign trail.
Still, that doesn’t make for a specific governing agenda. Which of the 18 principles in the Commitment’s one-page summary will be prioritized? The broader Commitment contains 39 discrete promises. There’s no sense which will receive primary or secondary focus.
That lack of clarity could be an indication of the type of House speaker McCarthy wants to be. Members have become accustomed to a system in which everything of import comes down from the speaker’s office. Many GOP members, especially those in the Freedom Caucus, have chafed under this regime and want a return to regular order. That is, they want committees and ordinary members to write and approve the bills, rather than the speaker’s staff.
Indeed, McCarthy suggested as much in a news conference in March 2021. When discussing rolling back covid-19 measures in Congress, he added: “I think we should go back to working in committee. I think bills should actually come through committee before they come to the floor.”
McCarthy’s plan might offer a vision of what that might look like. He seems to envision a conference dedicated to certain broad principles whose members work to determine the details and priorities.
This stands in stark contrast to the document that elevated former House speaker Paul D. Ryan to national discussion, his Roadmap for America’s Future. That ambitious plan offered highly detailed ideas for virtually every area that impacted the federal budget, from taxes to entitlement spending. There was clearly room for amendment, but it was essentially one person’s proposal to solve the problem of recurring federal deficits. But McCarthy, it appears, has no interest in Ryan’s comprehensive, top-down approach.
Holding looser reins might help McCarthy solve the long-running problem of corralling the GOP’s unruly conference. If more chefs get to cook the meal, it’s less likely they will be disappointed with the menu. This approach is more parliamentary than presidential, which is appropriate given that the speaker serves at the pleasure of the membership, as opposed to an executive with a secure term of office.
House Republicans are offering voters a clear sense of a change in direction — a return to tried-and-true ways of thinking and legislating. We’ll see soon whether that’s something Americans want.