Following 22 days of chaos, the House of Representatives finally elected a new speaker of the House October 25. Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson won the unanimous support of House Republicans after Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was ousted as speaker in early October and three leading Republicans tried and failed to win the gavel.
What do we know about Speaker Johnson? He’s in his fourth term in Congress representing the western portion of the Pelican State, including Shreveport. He previously served in the Louisiana State House. A lawyer, he worked for a number of religious and conservative advocacy groups before entering politics. He is widely seen as being strongly conservative, particularly on social issues.
His path to the speakership was not typical. Although he was the vice-chair of the House Republican Conference – the fifth-highest ranking Republican in the chamber – he was not a high-profile figure before this fall. He hasn’t chaired any congressional committees, and his relatively short time in office makes him the least experienced speaker since the 19th Century.
It appears he won the job for two big reasons: One, Republicans were exhausted from – and increasingly embarrassed by – the endless speaker fight, and wanted to move on. And two, Johnson’s amiable and non-confrontational style has enabled him to avoid making too many enemies.
That ability to remain on everyone’s good side will surely be tested over the coming weeks and months, as he navigates many challenging political and policy matters in a House where Republicans have the narrowest of majorities. Already he finds himself at cross-purposes to his Republican colleagues on the Senate side, who generally support President Biden’s call for additional funding for both Ukraine and Israel. Last week, Johnson brought before the House a bill to provide funding only for Israel, leaving Ukraine out. The bill passed on a mostly party-line vote, but is dead on arrival in the Senate, where lawmakers are working to include finding for both crises in a bill to keep government running past November 17, when the current short-term spending bill expires.
Two weeks ago, Johnson was a relatively obscure back-bench legislator. Now he finds himself having to negotiate with the President of the United States and Senate leaders on bills that will determine whether and how the United States supports two of its allies in a time of war, and whether the government remains open.
So what will the change in House leadership mean for CRM? Speaker Johnson has not played a major role on legislation affecting cultural resources in the past. And even as speaker, he is unlikely to insert himself into detailed policy questions over preservation and similar issues.
The new speaker’s impact on CRM will likely be indirect: will he be able to restore order to a fractious House and enable it to conduct business on the key issues before it? Preventing a government shutdown in a few weeks will be an important first test, as will seeing to it that legislation to reauthorize the Historic Preservation Fund, which expired at the end of September, moves forward. As a strong backer of the fossil fuel industry, he is likely to be supportive of efforts to streamline permitting laws to accelerate infrastructure projects. But with major disagreements between the two chambers on that issue – not to mention so many other important matters to address – permitting reform has little chance of moving ahead this year.
Ultimately, a new speaker’s ability to impose their personal agenda on the House is limited by the fact that, while they can use their bully pulpit to elevate certain issues, bills still need to be approved by a majority of the House. With Republicans still holding a razor-thin majority, it’s far from certain that Johnson will be more successful at advancing an aggressive than former Speaker McCarthy was.
House Approves Lower Historic Preservation Fund Amounts. The House approved the appropriations bill funding the Interior Department for the new fiscal year last week, including a reduction in spending for the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF). The bill would provide $175.4 million in fiscal year 2024 from the Fund to support S/THPOs and various competitive grant programs. That is below the record $204 million provided last year, and about $20 million below what the Senate is proposing. However, it is still significantly above the $150 million per year that is authorized to be added to the HPF from offshore oil and gas leases. ACRA and its allies continue to work to keep the number as high as possible, as state and Tribal preservation offices are deluged with Section 106 reviews from projects funded from the 2021 infrastructure law.
Preservation Champion to Retire. Last week brought news that Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a longtime champion for preservation, plans to retire at the end of the current Congress next year. Blumenauer serves as co-chair of the House Preservation Caucus and is the author of several pieces of legislation that support preservation, including ACRA-backed legislation to renew and strengthen the HPF. Blumenauer was first elected to Congress from his Portland-area district in 1996.