The hard-right rebels in the House who initially opposed Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for speaker argued that giving all members of Congress a greater say in lawmaking would be healthy for democracy.
But what remains uncertain is whether those changes will allow anything to get done.
Republican and Democratic critics alike say the concessions — most of them part of an informal agreement between the 20 dissenters and McCarthy — will allow a small group of lawmakers to grind the legislative process to a halt. And the stakes are high in a year with not only a budget battle coming in the fall but also a looming deadline to raise the nation’s debt limit and avoid a catastrophic default.
By several measures, the House has grown unwieldy over successive speakers from both parties. Rank-and-file members have little opportunity to debate or amend bills largely written behind closed doors in leadership offices — let alone read them. Congress enacts fewer pieces of legislation, and those bills have grown longer, according to a Brookings Institution analysis — in some cases by thousands of pages. Members regularly complain of hidden or unrelated provisions tucked into legislation.
The holdouts last week were trying to change that, they said, and exact fiscal demands from McCarthy that are likely to dominate the legislative calendar this year.
“We broke a little glass last week,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), one of the 20 dissenters who riveted the nation by holding up McCarthy’s election over four dramatic days. “But then what happened? We have more unity now than we’ve had in a while. Our republic is much healthier if we are having vigorous debate.”
After witnessing the difficulty of getting a majority of their colleagues to elect McCarthy as speaker, some Republicans privately worry that their razor-thin four-vote margin will make it difficult to reach consensus on several urgent fiscal matters that loom.
“When you open up a Pandora’s box, sometimes you don’t realize what tomorrow or next week or next month brings in,” said Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Tex.), the only Republican to vote against a package of rules, including a key one the dissenters had demanded, that passed the House on Monday in a largely party-line vote. “Today’s vote wasn’t just about the whole package, it’s, you know, what does … the next obstacle look like?”
Democrats, meanwhile, say they fear the new rules governing how the House operates will make it difficult, if not impossible, to get basic things done. They argue the concessions McCarthy made to the rebels were more about political expediency than about trying to improve the workings of Congress.
The GOP rules package “is laying the ground work toward dysfunction, defaults and potential government shutdowns that none of us want,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.
Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, accused Republican leaders of having “traded away the well-being of the American public, and our national security, for personal gain. For a vote. No way to run a government and no way to govern.”
Congress must increase the debt limit this year or put the nation at risk of defaulting on its debt — an outcome that all agree could cause the dollar’s value to plummet and cripple financial markets around the globe. Yet many Republicans, including the dissenters, want to exact dramatic cuts in domestic spending in exchange for avoiding such an economic emergency. The legislative branch must also fund the government by Sept. 30.
House Republicans are staunchly against passing a single legislative vehicle filled with trillions of dollars, informally known as an omnibus bill, over the traditional process of passing 12 individual appropriations bills. Congress hasn’t passed separate appropriations bills in both chambers by the mandated Sept. 30 deadline since 1997, when Bill Clinton was president.
According to an agreement between McCarthy and the dissenters, Republicans will reject any omnibus bill sent by the Senate even if the 12 separate bills fail to pass. They plan to support only short-term funding until their bills are adopted, putting Congress in a tenuous position almost 10 months before the government funding deadline.
Many Republicans say now that the fireworks have faded, their conference is united behind this plan.
“What you saw last week, there was conversation about change in the way that Washington works,” said House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.), who supported McCarthy all along but is now embracing what the dissenters fought for. “And that’s really at the heart of what the rules changes addressed last night that was passed overwhelmingly by our members, because Washington has been broken.”
There are reasons amendments have been barred at various times on the floor of the House. For instance, members of the minority party have tended to gum up the process with “poison pill” proposals designed to dilute a measure or make it harder for members of the majority to vote for it.
That could have particularly dire consequences during an appropriations process in which each of a dozen spending bills is considered separately. The longer the process lasts, the greater the possibility of a government shutdown.
“Opening this up will absolutely make it harder,” said Laura Blessing, a Congress scholar and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. “There may be sincere feelings about Confederate flags on graveyards or transgender bathrooms, but if you’re putting that into the appropriations process, you’re looking to make as many people as possible look stupid. You’re trying to divide the other party in a way that’s politically embarrassing.”
Now that Republicans are in charge, that weapon will be available to Democrats — a dynamic that played out in the 1990s when Newt Gingrich was speaker. After initially establishing vastly more open rules than the prior Congress, Gingrich’s House reversed some of that over time in the interest of greater control over the process. But he noted in an interview that the rules were far less open under both Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.,) the most recent speaker, as well as her predecessor, Republican Paul D. Ryan.
Pelosi held a narrow majority in the last Congress, but she struggled far less with party unity, at least out in the open, than McCarthy has. Experts say that may reflect an asymmetry between the parties: Democrats, including those on the far left, want something out of government and have an interest in seeing it continuing to function. Republicans on the hard right believe government is far too big and many are open about wanting its functions disrupted.
“I do think that one of the things that binds them together is not being especially concerned with what happens if the federal government is dead in the water,” said Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Critics of the dissenters said there is a significant difference between the purpose of Gingrich’s rule changes — which were part of Republicans’ Contract with America — and that of the new crop of rebels. The contract, which GOP candidates had campaigned on in 1994, included calls for tax cuts, a balanced budget requirement and welfare reform, among other proposals.
“The contract focused on improving outcomes for people using conservative ideas,” said Scott Millburn, a GOP House aide during the Gingrich years. “The ‘Rebel Ultimatum’ seems focused exclusively on impacting the House and its leaders — full stop. It is hard to see solid lines to benefits to people. It’s born of frustration, or even spite or anger, not a desire to serve.”
Gingrich defended the dissenters’ push for a balanced budget. But he criticized their apparent willingness to risk default on the nation’s debt if they don’t get the budget cuts they seek — a scenario he called “the fiscal equivalent of a nuclear weapon” that could spook investors from putting their money in the United States, cause the dollar’s value to plummet and potentially cripple financial markets around the globe.
Blessing, the Georgetown fellow, testified to Congress last year about what a disaster a default could be for the nation — and advocated for lawmakers to lift the debt ceiling entirely to prevent a small handful of representatives from pushing McCarthy or the country to the brink.
Blessing said a particular concern of hers is the order of business in 2023, with the debt ceiling debate likely coming before Congress takes up its spending bills. The last time Republicans mounted serious opposition to lifting the debt ceiling, in 2013, the timing was reversed. Lawmakers chastened by the fallout of a government shutdown over appropriations became less interested in pushing the debt debate.
“There is a political learning process with legislating,” she said. “I’m worried that these folks are walking a tightrope where they don’t have the ability to regroup after something goes wrong. I wish the debt ceiling vote was after the vote for the federal budget like it was in 2013. I wish the margins weren’t so narrow.”
Roy, the Texas Republican, disputed the idea that he or his fellow dissenters would allow the nation to default. For him, last week’s showdown was largely about demanding budgetary reforms — cuts in spending — in exchange for support for increasing the debt limit.
“Not one member of the United States Congress wants to default,” he said. “But under no circumstances should we bless a so-called clean increase in the debt ceiling without meaningful spending reform.”
One concession has attracted more attention than others: a provision included in the rules package adopted on Monday that allows a single member to call for a vote of no confidence in the speaker. Previously, one member of the majority party’s leadership had to support such a motion before a vote could proceed. Republicans and Democrats alike worried that the rule gives too much power to one Republican or Democrat to move to oust the speaker.
“The principle that any four or five people can blackmail the whole conference is really, really dangerous,” Gingrich said.
It’s also a scenario that Republicans and Democrats alike fear could repeat itself as the year unfolds.
Hillary J. Scholten, a first-term Democrat from western Michigan, said that as the drama over McCarthy’s election unfolded, she “literally felt like our democracy had been hijacked by a handful of extremists.”
Scholten said she plans to focus her attention on building relationships with more moderate and pragmatic Republicans who want to get things done. But she added that she remains worried: “I was feeling slightly fatigued after the 15th vote for speaker and wondering what in the world we had, you know, gotten ourselves into with this Congress.”
Jacqueline Alemany and Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.