In the wake of Tuesday’s unprecedented vote in the House of Representatives to oust Kevin McCarthy as Speaker, the political situation is volatile, and the leadership path forward is obscure.
Understandably, House Republicans want to control their fate by electing a new Speaker from their own ranks. To this end, they have scheduled a candidates’ forum for next Tuesday and votes on the House floor beginning Wednesday. If 218 Republicans can agree on a candidate, they will have solved their immediate problem and can return to the process of trying to pass individual appropriations bills. It is not clear that they will be able to do so, and even if they can, the Senate will not simply rubber-stamp whatever policies the House produces. But these are problems for another day.
It is possible, however, that House Republicans will not be able to agree on a new Speaker, a prospect raised by several supporters of Kevin McCarthy in the impassioned debate preceding his ouster. If not, they warned, the result would be a Speaker elected with substantial Democratic support, which would come with conditions that many Republicans will not like.
But such an outcome might be good for the House as an institution. Here’s why: Republicans have a numerical majority but not a governing majority. With a wafer-thin edge, a small fringe of the party can stall legislation it doesn’t like, force the rest of the party to accept poison-pill amendments as the price for their support, and — as we have seen — depose a Speaker who dares to cross them.
Under these circumstances, the better outcome is a coalition Speaker who would be a Republican elected pursuant to a formal bargain between Republicans and Democrats who are prepared to support such an arrangement. The bargain could include rules changes, shifts toward partisan parity in the composition of committees, and even a substantive agreement on a framework within which the appropriations process would proceed.
While there is precedent for such an arrangement at the state level, it would be a departure for the U.S. House of Representatives. But desperate times require innovation and may make it possible. The alternative is the continuation of a status quo that prevents the House from discharging its basic constitutional duties.
Still, a bipartisan breakthrough would occur against heavy resistance. Partisan divisions have reached a level last seen at the end of the 19th century, and the level of trust between members of the two parties is very low. Republican members of the House Problem Solvers caucus, a well-established bipartisan group, reportedly begged their Democratic colleagues to support a grand bargain that would retain McCarthy as Speaker. The refusal of these Democrats, the most compromise-minded members of their party, to consider this option threatens to blow up the caucus.
This points to a second obstacle to bipartisanship: over the past decade, the muscle-memory of compromise has faded. Of the current members of the House, 185 Republicans and 149 Democrats have been elected since 2010, the year in which the current era of hyper-partisanship began. These newer members have never experienced a House in which the pursuit of agreement across party lines was part of the institution’s operating manual.
In the long run, even more radical institutional changes may be needed. In 2013, Elaine Kamarck and I proposed a simple change in the rules of the House that would require a candidate for Speaker to gain the support of 60% of House members to be elected. If one party becomes dominant enough to achieve this supermajority, it could — as now — elect a member from its own ranks without support from the other party. But because the parties today are closely as well as deeply divided, they would be forced to bargain with each other to elect a Speaker — probably a relatively moderate member of the majority party who did not regard compromise as a dirty word.
Given current levels of partisanship, the prospects for radical change in the House’s modus operandi may seem remote, and perhaps they are. But the alternative is a level of congressional dysfunction with constitutional consequences. As Congress flounders, both the executive and judicial branches may be tempted, even forced, to take on tasks and powers that exceed their constitutional limits. Should those trends continue or even accelerate, America could face a constitutional crisis with profound consequences for the country and the world.