What the Speakership Battle is About

The Freedom Caucus wants a speaker who will back its next blackmail play.


Anybody who writes about the chaos in the House Republican caucus should start by admitting how much we in the general public don’t know. The 247 Republicans in the House form a group about the size of a medium-sized church or high school, so decisions can easily turn on the secret meetings of small cliques, phone conversations between leaders of factions, or even the private decisions of individuals. We don’t really know, for example, why Kevin McCarthy pulled out of the race for speaker. [1] We don’t know just how badly John Boehner wants to be done with it all. We don’t know what kinds of pressure can be brought on Paul Ryan to take the job, or whether it will succeed. (For all I know, it may already have succeeded or failed by the time you read this.)

So predicting exactly how events will play out, who’s going to wind up as speaker, how long the process will take, and so on — that’s for Beltway reporters who have inside information, and even they probably won’t know until just a few hours before the public announcements. (That ignorance won’t stop them from speculating, though.)

But in addition to the “inside baseball” of the House Republicans, there is also what stats geek Bill James once dubbed “outside baseball” — the kinds of deductions you can make from publicly available information. Outside baseball can’t tell you what the major players are thinking, but it can describe the external reality they have to deal with.

Getting to 218. Keeping with the Bill James theme, let’s start with numbers: The House has 435 members. The speaker is elected by the whole House, so the winner needs 218 votes. The way that has worked since time-out-of-mind is that the majority party has a private meeting beforehand, decides on its candidate, and then votes for him or her as a bloc on the House floor. (That majority-party meeting is what blew up Thursday, when McCarthy suddenly dropped out.)

But now we run into the Republican Party’s internal friction. The House Freedom Caucus is essentially the Tea Party faction within the Republican caucus. The HFC is generally described as having around 40 members, 36 of whom are listed in the Wikipedia article. So any Republican nominee they decide not to support falls short of 218.

In theory, Democrats could provide the handful of votes necessary to put a less-conservative candidate over the top, but why should they? Why not let the GOP’s squabbles fester and keep making embarrassing headlines? So the prospective speaker would have to offer Democrats some concession in exchange, and that would create an issue that could reverberate through a series of Republican primary challenges across the country: The “establishment Republicans” would rather make a deal with Democrats than with their “true conservative” base.

But the House needs a speaker to function, so at some point in a hung-up process, Democrats might help out just to get the House running again and avoid the bad things — government shutdowns, debt-ceiling crises — that happen when no laws are being passed. Similarly, at some point the non-HFC Republicans might fear the wrath of the country even more than primary challenges, so they’d be willing to deal with Democrats. Up to that point, though — and I think it’s still a long way off — the HFC is in a position to block any speaker it doesn’t like; except Boehner, who is already speaker and doesn’t need to win a new election.

O tempora! O mores! When you realize how easy it is for a small group to disrupt the election of a speaker, you start to wonder why this doesn’t happen all the time. For example, Democrats had only 233 seats in 2007, so any 16 renegade Democrats could have blocked Nancy Pelosi’s election. Democrats also have factions, and radical members from districts so safe they don’t have to fear bad publicity, so why didn’t a couple dozen far-left Democrats hold up Pelosi until she committed to defunding the Iraq War or passing single-payer health care or something?

The answer isn’t anything in the rules, it’s embodied in our political mores and taboos: You just don’t do that. When the party picks its candidate, you back him or her. That’s what it means for a member of Congress to belong to a party.

Or at least, that’s what it used to mean. One long-term issue hardly anybody talks about is the ongoing breakdown in our political systems’ mores and taboos. (I’ve written about it here and here.) In practice, no republic — especially not one with all the checks and balances our system has — can survive for long on its rules alone. It also needs a broad unwritten consensus on the bounds of reasonable behavior. Every year, our political mores and taboos unravel just a little bit more. [2] As a result, Congress gets more unwieldy, and the President [3] and the Supreme Court [4] keep expanding their reach so that the country continues to function.

People argue about this, but to me it’s obvious who’s unraveling the unwritten consensus: the Far Right. Combining a sense of entitlement with apocalyptic exaggeration, Tea Party rhetoric justifies its members in doing whatever it takes to get their way. Same-sex marriage, the national debt, ObamaCare, abortion — they’re all end-of-the-world issues, and God is on the Tea Party’s side. So if getting your way means refusing to do your job, telling outrageous lies, shutting down the government, or threatening to crash the economy, well, that’s just what you have to do.

The Blackmail Caucus. After Republicans took over the House in the wave election of 2010, the newly ascendant Tea Partiers began pushing a new legislative tactic: blackmail.

It’s important to understand the difference between ordinary political bargaining and blackmail. In ordinary bargaining, I push for what I want and you push for what you want; eventually we compromise on something that contains a little of each, balanced according to our relative strengths. But in blackmail, you push for what you want and I push something nobody wants, because I’m counting on you to surrender rather than let it happen.

So, for example, suppose I’ve kidnapped your daughter. I don’t want to shoot her; that wouldn’t accomplish anything for me and could expose me to a death sentence someday. In fact nobody wants me to shoot her; shooting her serves no useful purpose for anybody. But I’m counting on the fact that your distaste for seeing her dead is much stronger than mine, so you’ll do what I want.

That pretty well describes the debt ceiling crises of 2011 (when Obama paid the ransom) and 2013 (when he didn’t and John Boehner made the House back down). If the federal government ever hits the debt limit, checks will start bouncing and world markets will lose faith in U.S. bonds, with catastrophic effects for the global economy. (As Henry Blodgett summarized, “In relatively short order, therefore, the United States will stiff about 40% of the people and companies it owes money to.”) Nobody wants that, but Ted Cruz and his allies in the Freedom Caucus believed in 2013 that President Obama wanted it even less than they did, so he’d have to give in and defund ObamaCare. [5]

That was all perfectly legal. Nothing in the Constitution says that a faction in Congress can’t blackmail the rest of the country, but it used to be taboo. Now the Tea Party considers it an acceptable tactic. [6]

The Boehner problem. From the Tea Party point of view, the problem with John Boehner is that he doesn’t have enough backbone to shoot the hostages. So when Obama refused to blink in 2013, Boehner gave in and let a clean debt-ceiling resolution pass the House. Again just last month, when the Freedom Caucus was pushing to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding (funding that most of the country supports), Boehner again let a clean continuing resolution come to the floor, which passed with mostly Democratic votes. So the government is funded through December 11, and the current debt ceiling should last until November 5.

After Boehner blinked in the 2013 stare-down, conservatives started rumbling about ousting him as speaker. Part of the reason for announcing his resignation last month was to allow him to keep the government open without fear of retribution: You can’t fire me, I’ve already announced I’m quitting.

The open question is whether Boehner will take advantage of the Party’s inability to replace him, and just ignore the Freedom Caucus going forward. [7] He could, for example, let a clean debt-ceiling bill come to the floor and negotiate a longer-term budget deal with the Democrats.

What the Tea Party wants from the next speaker. Now we’re in a position to understand why I think the contest for the speakership is being completely mis-covered by the mainstream press. Their focus has been entirely on who. Initially, would Kevin McCarthy be more acceptable to the Freedom Caucus than Boehner? And then later, could Paul Ryan or somebody else satisfy them?

All that talk ignores the Freedom Caucus’ published desires: not a who, a what. They want the next speaker committed to backing their next blackmail play, when the debt ceiling comes up again in a few weeks or the government runs out of money in December.

That comes through clearly when you read the questionnaire the Freedom Caucus prepared for speaker candidates. Question #15 seeks a commitment from the new speaker not to allow another continuing resolution and not to allow appropriation bills to pass if they fund “Planned Parenthood, unconstitutional amnesty, the Iran deal, and Obamacare.” Question #13 lists provisions that should be attached to any debt-ceiling increase, including “significant structural entitlement reforms” (i.e., Social Security and Medicare cuts), and seeks a commitment to “not schedule the consideration of another vehicle that contains a debt limit increase”.

A number of the questions concern the process by which bills come to the floor, but the gist of them is that Freedom Caucus members should have an easier time attaching amendments (i.e., ransom demands) to debt-ceiling or government-funding resolutions.

So it’s not about personalities or trust or being “one of us”. The next time the Tea Party tries to hold the country hostage, they don’t want the Speaker to tell them no. It doesn’t matter whether the “no” comes from John Boehner or Paul Ryan or even Freedom Caucus Chair Jim Jordan. Who doesn’t matter. They want a commitment that the next speaker will shoot the hostages.

I don’t think they’ll get it. (I think that’s what Kevin McCarthy meant when he told National Review that HFC members “wanted things I couldn’t deliver”.) If they stick to their guns — and so far I don’t see any reason to think they won’t — then I don’t see anything moving until we get close to November 5, when Democrats and the Republican establishment will have to unite against them, either to elect a new speaker or to back Boehner’s debt-ceiling resolution.

That will energize a string of Tea Party primary challenges against establishment Republicans, which may have been the point all along. The ultimate goal of the Tea Party isn’t to defund Planned Parenthood or even ObamaCare, it’s to complete their takeover of the Republican Party. They’re playing a long game, and even a defeat in the speakership battle could work to their advantage.


[1] In addition to the surface explanation (that McCarthy didn’t think he could put together the 218 votes to win), there’s a conspiracy theory going around. So far it has zero direct evidence behind it, but at least makes some kind of narrative sense (i.e., it would fit right into a political novel like Advise and Consent).

On Tuesday, North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones sent an odd letter to the caucus chair, Cathy McMorris Rodgers:

With all the voter distrust of Washington felt around the country, I’m asking that any candidate for Speaker of the House, majority leader, and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public.

The letter has a weird I-know-something vibe to it, but doesn’t even hint at what Jones thinks he knows. The Week‘s columnist Matt Lewis tentatively suggests what it might be:

Many conservatives are buzzing over rumors — and let’s be clear, they are unsubstantiated rumors that both parties deny — that McCarthy had carried on an affair with Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).

The Hill reports that congressmen were receiving emails from activists threatening to expose the affair, and that McCarthy was asked about the rumors Tuesday in a meeting with Texas Republicans.

[2] For example, the filibuster has been around just about forever, but generations of senators held a consensus that a filibuster was only appropriate on the one or two occasions in his life when a senator was willing to stake his career on an issue. So, for example, nobody filibustered Medicare.

Today, filibusters are routine, leading journalists to cover them as if the Constitution said that it takes 60 votes to pass anything through the Senate.

[3] If we wind up in a dictatorship, it won’t be because the public is disarmed or the government takes over the health care system, but because the President and the electorate simultaneously lose patience with the logjam in Congress. Imagine President Trump facing the collapse of the economy due to a debt-ceiling crisis and saying, “I’m sorry, you guys, but this is over.”

[4] The connection between congressional dysfunction and the Supreme Court’s expanded role is more subtle, but equally clear. Take Chief Justice Roberts’ decision saving ObamaCare in 2012: He ruled against the individual mandate penalty as a fine, but said it would be constitutional as a tax. In the old days, a judge would then count on Congress to fix the law. But that’s impossible now, so Roberts had a choice between killing ObamaCare and reinterpreting the text as if it had been fixed.

This kind of thing is happening more and more: Rather than give Congress instructions on how to make a law constitutional (knowing that such amendments can’t possibly pass in the current environment), the Court just fixes laws through interpretation.

[5] The other important thing to keep in mind is how against democracy this whole plan was. ObamaCare had been a major issue in the election of 2012, and President Obama had been re-elected handily. (In fact, Democratic candidates for the House also got more votes than Republican candidates, but gerrymandering maintained the Republican House majority.) So Republicans had taken their anti-ObamaCare message to the voters and lost.

[6] President Obama recently made a statement that emphasized just how one-sided blackmail tactics are:

I know, for example, that there are many Republicans who are exercised about Planned Parenthood. … But you can’t have an issue like that potentially wreck the entire U.S. economy, anymore than I should hold the entire budget hostage to my desire to do something about gun violence. I feel just as strongly about that. And I think I’ve got better evidence for it. But the notion that I would threaten the Republicans, that unless they passed gun safety measures that would stop mass shootings, I’m going to shut down the government and not sign an increase in the debt ceiling, would be irresponsible of me and the American people rightly would reject that.

Nothing in the Constitution prevents a president from making a demand like that, but Democrats still believe blackmail tactics should be taboo.

[7] President Obama has gotten much bolder after the 2014 elections, entering what I’ve been calling the aw-fukkit phase of his presidency. Boehner could join him there.

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Comments

  • Anonymous  On October 12, 2015 at 10:52 am

    Hmm, my understanding is that there are already rules about what to do when there is no speaker, which is basically that there is an “acting speaker.” The “acting speaker” can get things voted on while the House continues to fight about who they want to elect. So the Democrats don’t necessarily need to help out unless they get something they want out of it.

    • weeklysift  On October 12, 2015 at 11:40 am

      I haven’t seen those rules, so if you have a reference, that would be a contribution. But the “acting speaker” idea would only help if it somehow happened automatically; if appointing one requires a majority, we’re back in the same boat.

  • Jacquie Mardell  On October 12, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    If memory serves, the Warsaw ghetto occupants tried to rise up a couple of times against the Wehrmacht. That went poorly for them.

  • Kate Camp  On October 12, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    The fact that the Speaker of the House is third in line for the presidency adds a frightening twist to all this.

    • Paige Osborn  On October 12, 2015 at 11:03 pm

      It sure does.

    • weeklysift  On October 13, 2015 at 6:08 am

      In the absence of a speaker, the Senate’s president pro tem would be third in line. Right now, that’s Orrin Hatch.

  • c rucker  On October 14, 2015 at 11:56 am

    Why would anyone want to run for public office, when even if elected you can do nothing. Americans put words on paper and then circumvent them in everyway possible.

  • 1mime  On October 14, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    And Hatch is 80 years old.

Trackbacks

  • By Concessions to Reality | The Weekly Sift on October 12, 2015 at 11:27 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “What the Speakership Battle is About“. […]

  • By No Responsibility | The Weekly Sift on October 19, 2015 at 11:24 am

    […] Still no apparent progress towards choosing a speaker. The idea that Paul Ryan would satisfy the right-wingers is falling apart. I’m standing by my analysis from last week. […]

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