Hoist Meet Petard

In order to secure support from the 20 craziest  members of the Republican (as opposed to the crazy members who support him), Kevin McCarthy has been agreeing to various proposals that will weaken the power of the party leadership. While we don’t know the details, it appears he has been supporting rules that would limit the use of closed rules in the consideration of some (or perhaps) all legislation on the floor of the House.

Before any legislation can be considered on the floor of the US House, the House has to adopt a “rule” that has first been adopted by the House Rules Committee which, since the mid 1970s, has been an arm of the party leader,  that is the Speaker of the House. A closed rule prohibits any amendments from being considered on the floor. An open rule allows any amendment to be propose. And a modified closed (or open) rule allows only certain amendments for being considered.

Some TV pundits seem to be agonizing about the weakening of the Speaker. But I strongly suggest they are wrong. By weakening the power of party leaders, the Republicans are creating a petard upon which I expect they will be hoisted multiple times in the next two years.

From the point of view of Democrats and the interests of the American people, there are two very important upsides to weakening the party leadership for Democrats and the American people.

First, if the Speaker and the Rules Committee cannot block amendments to bills the floor, they can’t stop an amendment that gets cross party support to raise the debt limit. There are at least five Republicans who are sensible enough to recognize that allowing the US to default on its debt would possibly be an economic catastrophe. So they will join the Democrats in voting for a clean debt limit increase.

That means the Republicans won’t be a able to use the debt limit vote as a hostage to force Democrats to change public policies we like such as the ACA expansion, etc.

Second, a weakened party leadership will make it harder for the Republicans to move legislation of their own through the House. Pelosi usually brought bills to the floor that were compromises that were agreed to by various Democratic factions. And they were considered under a closed rule that prohibited amendments.

The danger of an open rule is that a member, either Democrat or Republican, can offer an amendment that may be very popular or difficult to vote against and that might pass, but which would at the same time upset the delicate compromise that held the various factions together. Given the choice of an up and down vote on an agreed compromise, the majority party is more likely to stick together. Enabling one faction or another to try to improve  the bill with an amendment, threatens party agreement.

So weakening the party leadership will make it harder for Republican House majority to pass anything they want.

Other proposed rule changes also will weaken the Speaker. Allowing just one member of the House to propose a resolution to declare the Speakership vacant, which is a privileged motion that must be considered, could make a Speaker afraid to push any member  too far in seeking a majority in support of party sponsored legislation. And that, too, weakens the leadership.

If the Democrats had a majority, I might be concerned about weakening the office of the Speaker, although for some time I’ve had some concern that power has become too concentrated in the party leadership.

But as long as Republicans, with their dangerous agenda of cutting Social Security, Medicare and the ACA, banning abortion, and various other horrible ideas, have a (bare) majority, I can only applaud moves that weaken the ability of the Republican majority to move legislation forward.

So in the not too distant future, I expect the Republican Speaker–whoever he or she is–and the party as a whole will rue the day McCarthy agreed to these new rules. Even if  McCarthy can win the Speaker’s office after all these concessions, by making them, he may have boxed in any  Republican who wants to be Speaker. How can Scalise or anyone else walk back those concession?

So the petard is already set up for the Republicans. Anyone who becomes the Republican Speaker of the House will hold a weakened, ineffective office and go down in history as one of the least effective congressional leaders in history. And whether he is Speaker or not Kevin McCarthy will go down in history as the Congressional leader whose selfish pursuit of power did the most to undermine the power of his party.

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