You are probably aware that the Republican majority in the House is having a tough year.
It took them more than a dozen votes to elect a speaker in January, eventually settling on Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) after he agreed to let any member trigger a vote on his ouster. Then Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) triggered such a vote and, to McCarthy’s apparent surprise, he was ousted. Then the conference held internal votes identifying three candidates to fill the empty speaker position — only to see two of those candidates drop out before a floor vote and the other fail to secure a majority on the floor three times.
And all of that is before you get to the actual votes on legislation.
On Wednesday, a day after passing a short-term funding bill but being unable to get traction on other needed measures, the House gave up. Went home. Called an early start to the Thanksgiving holiday which, you may be aware, is still a week away.
That the funding bill passed is a good sign for the new House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), certainly. But his inability to organize his conference in support of his priorities, as manifested on Wednesday, is not a good sign moving forward — nor is the fact that the funding bill passed with more Democratic than Republican votes. In fact, that’s bad for another reason, which we’ll get to in a second.
Consider that, so far in this Congress, the position held by most of the Republican conference on yes/no votes has been successful only 77 percent of the time. In the previous 10 congressional terms, four of which had Democratic majorities, the House majority averaged a 94 percent success rate.
Members of the conference have certainly noticed. On Wednesday, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) excoriated his colleagues for failing to pass “one meaningful, significant thing” while in power.
Roy: One thing. I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing. One. That I can go campaign on and say we did. Anybody sitting in the complex, if you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me, one meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done pic.twitter.com/RGc4FTAelt
— Acyn (@Acyn) November 15, 2023
In recent Congresses, it’s been more common for the result of votes to be close. Even when adjusting for the size of the margin held by the majority party at the start of the Congress, the percentage of votes that pass or fail by less than 40 votes (darker colors below) has climbed from about a third of those cast in the 108th through 110th Congresses to half of the votes in the past three terms.
Then the Republican majority in the 118th Congress layers on that other ignominy: a higher percentage of votes lost by 40 votes or more. Before this Congress, the position held by the most lawmakers in the House majority would lose that badly only about 7 percent of the time — often because leaders wouldn’t bring votes to the floor or the conference was more unified. In this Congress, it’s happened 18 percent of the time.
This leadership issue is the central one. The Republican conference revels in rebelling against its leadership, often seeking the approval of right-wing media for throwing up obstacles to casting the 200th vote for something that caucus leaders consider important.
But then there’s that other issue: Republicans often don’t want their elected leaders to compromise. Polling released on Wednesday from NPR and PBS NewsHour shows that Republican voters are about evenly split between wanting the House speaker to stand on principle, even if it leads to gridlock, and reaching a compromise with Democrats.
When McCarthy was on the brink of losing his position, Gaetz specifically pointed to the then-speaker’s willingness to work with Democrats as a reason to oppose his leadership. With no small amount of irony, the Democratic minority then joined Gaetz and seven other Republicans to ensure McCarthy’s removal.
This is the challenge Johnson now faces. His conference is split between two poles, the always-truculent far-right fringe and the newly truculent less-conservative coalition that submarined the bid for speaker by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). It takes only a few Republicans to go south for the conference’s priorities to fail — even as many in the Republican base object to picking up those votes from Democrats.