Four deals Kevin McCarthy made to become speaker, explained

Washington DC - Rep. Kevin McCarthy won his 15th bid to become speaker of the US House, but only at great cost.

New US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy points up to his plaque just mounted over the door to the Speaker's office.
New US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy points up to his plaque just mounted over the door to the Speaker's office.  © REUTERS

To win the votes he needed to secure the gavel, McCarthy had to agree to a series of House rule changes that weakened the power of his post.

On Monday night, the House approved those rules, which will govern how the chamber runs until the next election in 2024.

Here’s a rundown of the most important concessions McCarthy made – including but not limited to key changes to House rules.

McCarthy lets the far right help make the rules

Democratic members of Congress listen as Kevin McCarthy addresses the House of Representatives for the first time after being elected Speaker.
Democratic members of Congress listen as Kevin McCarthy addresses the House of Representatives for the first time after being elected Speaker.  © REUTERS

Now-Speaker McCarthy is reported to have agreed to appoint members of the Freedom Caucus, an ultra-conservative faction of House Republicans, to important committees such as the influential Committee on Rules. That panel is the main vehicle the speaker uses to control how debates are conducted and how bills advance in the House.

The Rules Committee’s extensive powers include the ability to rewrite bills – with the approval of the House – after they have been voted on by other committees. Members of the panel also decide which amendments, if any, will be allowed on bills that come up on the House floor. The conservative rebels had pushed for more votes with so-called "open" rules that allow every member to offer amendments.

Although there are ways to bypass this committee, it has enormous influence over the success and failure of bills in the lower chamber of Congress.

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McCarthy has reportedly agreed to appoint three members of the Freedom Caucus to the panel. Since the committee will probably contain nine Republicans and four Democrats, the three Freedom Caucus members could break off and vote with the Democrats to vote down any rules they opposed.

McCarthy makes it easy for fellow Republicans to fire him

McCarthy also agreed to changes that will make it easier for his detractors to start proceedings to unseat him. Just one representative can call a vote to oust McCarthy; previously, half of House Republicans were needed. McCarthy had initially agreed to a five-vote threshold.

"This is one of the prices that was demanded by the holdout colleagues, so he really had no choice," said Sarah Binder, professor of political science at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"McCarthy, elected as speaker, is always going to be on a short leash."

McCarthy makes tax increases and new spending easier to block

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy addresses the House of Representatives for the first time after his election.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy addresses the House of Representatives for the first time after his election.  © REUTERS

The new House rules include several provisions that would make it easier to block spending and tax increases. Any member could raise a point of order to block a bill, amendment, or conference report that would increase appropriations or mandatory spending programs (for example, Medicaid or Social Security). Only a majority vote could overturn the point of order. Additionally, any increase in tax rates would require the support of 60% of the House.

The rules also require any increase in the debt limit to be voted on by the House, eliminating a previous rule that raised the debt limit automatically as Congress approved new budget-related measures.

These promises, in particular, may lead to the GOP-controlled House clashing with the Senate and White House, which are controlled by Democrats.

"These are the commitments that McCarthy will have a very hard time upholding his end of the bargain, because the Senate weighs in, and they will have a different view, even probably Republicans," Binder told The LA Times.

"President Biden is not going to want to sign into law cuts to domestic or military spending. So the dilemma going forward for McCarthy is, it seems to be a sort of a straight path to a government shutdown."

McCarthy guarantees a vote on congressional term limits

McCarthy has also acquiesced to a vote on a bill that would limit representatives to three terms (six years in total) and senators to two terms (12 years in total). The constitutional amendment is a long-standing wish of Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who unsuccessfully sponsored bills on the matter in 2019 and 2021. Norman was one of the holdouts whose vote McCarthy needed to become speaker.

"Serving in the House or Senate should be a temporary privilege, not a career choice," Norman said when announcing his 2021 bill, which was also supported by Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia in the House and Ted Cruz of Texas in the Senate. "With the allure of Washington, it becomes easy over time to lose sight of your constituents back at home."

McCarthy has spent 16 years in the House and is currently in his ninth term as a congressman.

Why did McCarthy do it?

Kevin McCarthy is sworn into office after being elected the next Speaker of the US House.
Kevin McCarthy is sworn into office after being elected the next Speaker of the US House.  © REUTERS

For some, McCarthy’s wide-ranging concessions to the so-called "Never Kevin" faction reinforce the caricature of McCarthy as a careerist politician who cares more about the gavel than being an effective leader.

"At this point, he has made so many different compromises of values, principles, policies, that he just wants the gavel," said Aaron Fritschner, deputy chief of staff for Democratic Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia and a frequent tweeter on House procedural issues.

For McCarthy, the speakership "has been seemingly his landmark political goal for himself, and he is as ambitious as the next politician," Binder said. "Oftentimes, it is holding power and not necessarily what you are going to do with the power that makes a difference to these leaders."

McCarthy has acknowledged that he had to do a lot to win his post. "I hope one thing’s clear after this week," he said in his first speech as speaker early Saturday morning. "I never give up."

What happens next?

The true test of McCarthy’s weakened speakership, Binder said, will come when the core issues of governance, such as funding the government to prevent a shutdown or raising the debt ceiling to prevent default, come up later this year.

On those core issues, "it is problematic to have a leader who is on such a short leash and is having to give away the store to his opponents," Binder said.

Cover photo: REUTERS

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