The old saying, “May you live in interesting times,” which has often been attributed (probably incorrectly) to a Chinese proverb, is widely seen as more a curse than a blessing. That is certainly true these days in Washington.
Last week, for the first time in the country’s history, the House of Representatives voted to remove a speaker of the House from his post, throwing one half of one-third of the U.S. government into uncertainty and chaos – not to mention deepening inter- and intra-party strife.
So what happened, exactly, and why? And what does it portend for federal policymaking on issues that impact CRM? Here are a few answers, along with some educated, and semi-educated, guesses.
What happened to Kevin McCarthy?
On Tuesday, the House voted, 216-210, in favor of a “motion to vacate” the speakership. Immediately upon passage of this motion, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who had been elected speaker only last January, was no longer speaker of the House. Later that evening, he announced he would not try to return as speaker.
Why did the motion to vacate happen?
Under rules approved by the House GOP majority last January, any one member of the House is allowed to offer such a motion, which (also under the rules) must be voted upon within two legislative days. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) offered the motion on Monday.
The motion to vacate process has been around since the start of the Republic. Until 2019, House rules allowed any one member of Congress to offer such a motion. In 2019, Democrats changed the rules to require a majority of either party in Congress to support bringing up a motion. In January 2023, McCarthy agreed to return to the single member requirement as one of the concessions he made with far-right House Republicans to secure their support for becoming speaker. (In other words, McCarthy essentially green-lit the rules change that ultimately led to his downfall.)
The motion requires a majority of the House to support it in order to oust the speaker. Eight Republicans joined with 208 Democrats to vote in favor of firing McCarthy, while 210 Republicans voted to keep him (seven House members were not present to vote, and there are two vacancies.)
Why did those eight Republicans vote to remove their own speaker?
Most of the eight Republicans are members of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus, which had tormented McCarthy throughout the year by pressuring him to take hardline positions on various issues before Congress, ranging from border security to impeaching President Biden. The group’s anger at McCarthy grew last Spring when the speaker struck a deal with President Biden to raise the debt ceiling that did not cut spending as much as they’d like. But the last straw was McCarthy’s decision two weekends ago to bring to the floor a stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, which passed thanks to the votes of a large number of Democrats.
Why did Democrats vote to remove him?
The fighting among Republicans put Democrats in an odd position: either support a Republican speaker whom many did not trust, or side with the right-wing Freedom Caucus to oust him. While it’s to be expected that Democrats wouldn’t be fans of a Republican speaker, Democrats have said they found McCarthy particularly untrustworthy. They’ve cited his visit to former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago after criticizing him for his role in January 6, his announcement of an impeachment inquiry into President Biden after saying one would happen only if the full House voted on it, and his decision to undo the spending deal he negotiated with President Biden to raise the debt ceiling. For Democrats, though, the final nail in the coffin came days before the vote: after Democrats voted to keep the government open, McCarthy went on the Sunday talk shows and claimed that Democrats wanted to shut the government down.
In the end, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) announced he would support the motion to vacate, and the rest of the Democrats agreed.
So who is the speaker now?
Until the House elects a new speaker (more on that below), there is no speaker. Under procedures adopted after the 9/11 attacks, each speaker provides a secret list to the House clerk of individuals who will serve as speaker pro tem in the event they are incapacitated.
Once the House removed McCarthy on Tuesday, the Clerk announced that Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), a close McCarthy ally, was the first name on that list.
What can and can’t the speaker pro tem do?
It’s unclear, as the rules do not specify the responsibilities of the speaker pro tem. But it is generally believed that McHenry’s role is simply to oversee the selection of a new speaker. It also is broadly accepted that the House cannot debate and vote on legislation until a speaker is elected (although House committees can still hold hearings and conduct other business).
Upon taking the speaker pro tem role, McHenry announced that the House would recess until this week, when the process of electing a new speaker would begin. He did, however, make one notable move: he ordered former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and former Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) out of the small offices they occupied in the Capitol, a move Democrats chalked up to revenge for Democrats’ voting to remove McCarthy.
In addition, while the speaker of the House is second in line for the presidency, after the vice president, a speaker pro tem is not. This means that the Senate president pro tem, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), is, for the time being, second in line for the Oval Office.
When is the House voting on a new speaker?
Early this week, the Republican and Democratic members will meet, separately, to decide whom they will nominate as their choice for speaker. Democrats will undoubtedly pick their current leader, Rep. Jeffries.
On the Republican side, two House members have announced their bids: Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who is the current house majority leader; and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who is the current chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the Freedom Caucus. Other GOP House members may also jump into the race. The GOP is planning to vote on their choice for speaker on Wednesday; any candidate that receives a majority of the vote is the GOP nominee for speaker.
That is where things may get interesting – and unpredictable. The House will convene Wednesday to select the speaker; a candidate must get 217 votes to be elected, and any member of the House can nominate someone other than the Democratic and Republican nominees. Because Republicans currently hold 221 seats, the GOP nominee can only lose the support of four Republicans to be denied the speakership.
Recall that last January, it took McCarthy 15 votes to get to a majority, because of recalcitrant Republicans who refused to vote for him until he made various concessions to them (including, of course, the ability of any one member of the House to offer a motion to vacate). Will the eventual Republican nominee be forced to make concessions to hard-right House GOP members to secure the needed 217 votes? And will one of those concessions be to keep the motion to vacate rules, which could mean the new speaker could also face a potential ouster?
What happens if nobody gets 217 votes for speaker?
The House will vote again. And again, and again, and again . . .
There are a whole range of scenarios, ranging from unusual to downright bizarre, that could theoretically take place if the deadlock persists for a long time.
Some Democrats hope that four or five Republicans could cross the aisle and vote for Jeffries as speaker, giving him 217 votes and putting the Democratic leader in the speaker’s chair. (They note that there are 18 House Republicans who represent districts that voted for President Biden in the 2020 election.) But it is exceedingly unlikely that any Republican would vote for a Democrat for speaker (or vice versa).
Others hold out hope that, should the race drag on, a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats would band together to find a consensus candidate and push them over the line. (One name floated is former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), who lost her primary race in 2022 after becoming an outspoken critic of former President Trump). But it is unlikely that such a group could cobble together 217 votes from both sides to pick someone other than the Democratic and Republican nominees.
Another option is picking someone who is not actually a member of the House. The Constitution does not specify that the speaker must be a U.S. representative, although many constitutional scholars argue that such a requirement is implied. Even so, in these polarized times it is not clear than any American could bring both sides together. And sadly, Betty White passed away last year.
So who will the new speaker be?
If this blogger could accurately predict that, he’d go to Las Vegas and make a fortune.
Will the government shut down?
The government came thisclose to shutting down on October 1, until McCarthy put forward the short-term funding bill that ultimately led to his downfall. That bill keeps federal agencies open until November 17.
The House cannot vote on any bills to keep government open until a speaker is selected, meaning the longer the process drags out, the less time there will be to find a way to keep the government open. Even once a speaker is elected, they will most certainly face the same pressures that McCarthy felt, namely, to not pass a short-term funding bill and keep working on full-year appropriations bills. However, at this point, the House and Senate have not come to agreement on any of the 12 appropriations bills, and many of the same House members who demand Congress focus on those bills actually blocked some of them from coming to the House floor in September.
What does this mean for CRM?
In the short term, the biggest potential impact on the CRM industry is the possibility of a government shutdown, which could impact federal contracts and other work with federal agencies.
Beyond that, the lack of a House speaker means it will be impossible to move ahead on other issues. To take one example, the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF) expired on Sept. 30, and the House is unable to renew it until there is a speaker. (The Fund’s expiration in of itself does not impact the ability of Congress to provide monies from the Fund, which supports S/THPOs and other preservation competitive grant programs, but the lack of a speaker also means the House can’t approve any spending from the Fund in the new fiscal year.)
Once a speaker is selected, it is probable that the House will continue pursuing policies that it did under former Speaker McCarthy, including permitting reform. But with a new speaker potentially facing the same challenges from the Freedom Caucus, all legislating will be unpredictable. Stay tuned to ACRASphere.