The House of Representative is in chaos. John Boehner announced his intention to step down as Speaker at the end of the month. There doesn’t appear to be anyone to take his place. The leading candidate, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, abruptly withdrew from the race yesterday. Another popular choice, Paul Ryan, says he’s not interested.
What happened? How did we get to this point? One document, produced by the House Freedom Caucus, holds all the answers. Framed as a “questionnaire” the document effectively makes it impossible for any candidate to both: 1) Get elected speaker, and 2) Not send the entire country (and maybe the world) over a cliff.
Why the Freedom Caucus has so much power
The House Freedom Caucus, a relatively new group of about 40 Republicans loosely associated with the Tea Party, has an extraordinary amount of power in this process. Any potential speaker needs the support of 218 Republicans on the floor of the House. There are currently 247 Republicans in the House. That’s a large majority but without the Freedom Caucus, no candidate can get to 218.
What the Freedom Caucus says they want
The Freedom Caucus says they are just fighting for arcane rule changes that will enhance “democracy” in the House. On CNN yesterday, David Brat, a prominent member of the Freedom Caucus outlined his criteria for a new speaker. (You may remember Brat for his surprise victory over Eric Cantor, the man many assumed would replace Boehner as speaker.)
Anyone that ensures a fair process for all sides. That’s what we are all looking for, right… We’ve shown principle. We are waiting for leadership candidates to put in writing moves that ensure you have a democratic process within our own conference. That is what everyone is waiting to see. And it’s got to be in writing, ahead of time for that to be credible.
Sounds perfectly reasonable, right?
What the Freedom Caucus actually wants
Yesterday, Politico published the House Freedom Caucus “questionnaire” which it described as pushing for “House rule changes.” The document does do that. But it also does a lot more. It seeks substantive commitments from the next speaker that would effectively send the entire country into a tailspin.
For example, the document seeks a commitment from the next speaker to tie any increase in the debt ceiling to cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The United States will reach the debt limit on November 5. If the limit is not raised prior to that point, the United States could default on its obligations. This could have disasterous effects on the economy of the United States and the entire world. In 2013, a Treasury Department report found “default could result in recession comparable to or worse than 2008 financial crisis.”
Cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is extremely unpopular, even among Republicans. These programs are sacrosanct to most Democratic members of Congress. There is effectively no chance that President Obama or Senate Democrats — both of whom would need to support such legislation — would agree to “structural entitlement reforms” in the next month under these kind of conditions.
The House Freedom Caucus essentially wants to make it impossible for the next speaker to raise the debt ceiling. But that is just the beginning.
The House Freedom Caucus also wants the next speaker to commit to numerous conditions on any agreement to avoid a government shutdown:
The government will run out of money on December 11. Unless additional funding is approved before that date, the government will shut down.
The House Freedom Caucus wants the next speaker to commit to not funding the government at all unless President Obama (and Senate Democrats) agree to defund Obamacare, Planned Parenthood and a host of other priorities. This is essentially the Ted Cruz strategy which prompted at 16-day shutdown in 2013. This would now be enshrined as the official policy of the Speaker Of The House.
The House Freedom Caucus wants the next speaker to commit to oppose any “omnibus” bill that would keep the government running. Rather, funding for each aspect of government could only be approved by separate bills. This would allow the Republicans to attempt to finance certain favored aspects of government (the military), while shuttering ones they view as largely unnecessary (education, health).
Why McCarthy thinks the House might be ungovernable
For McCarthy, the document helps explain why he dropped out of the race. If he doesn’t agree to the demands of the House Freedom Caucus, he cannot secure enough votes to become speaker. But if he does agree to their demands, he will unable to pass legislation that is necessary to avoid disastrous consequences for the country.
McCarthy said that, even if he managed to get elected speaker, he doesn’t see how he would be able to have enough votes to extend the debt ceiling and keep the government open.
Asked by the National Review if he thought the House was governable, McCarthy said, “I don’t know. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.”
Why no one wants to be speaker
Top Republicans are calling Paul Ryan and begging him to be speaker. But thus far, he hasn’t agreed to run. None of the candidates currently running appear to have substantial support.
The agenda of the House Freedom Caucus makes a difficult job effectively impossible. Agreeing to their demands means presiding over a period of unprecedented dysfunction in the United States.
Even if a candidate was able to become speaker without formally agreeing to the Freedom Caucus’ most extreme requirements, one would still have to deal with the group — and a larger group of House Republicans sympathetic to them — in order to get anything done.
This is why Boehner wanted out and why no one really wants to take his place.