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  • Matthew Green

The struggle to select a Speaker

The first week of the 118th Congress was an amazing spectacle: the House of Representatives took four days and fifteen ballots to choose its Speaker, the most ballots in a Speaker election since 1860.

The voting on Friday night was especially dramatic. On the next to last ballot, Matt Gaetz (R-FL) cast a last-minute “present” vote, keeping GOP nominee Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from getting elected yet again. This led to a pointed conversation between the pair, and a furious Mike Rogers (R-AL) was forcibly pulled away from Gaetz. After four other Republicans switched their votes in the last round of voting, McCarthy won, beating Democratic nominee Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) 216 to 212, with six Republicans voting present.

It was an historic and dramatic event, but what did all this drama tell us, if anything, about congressional politics more generally? Here are some initial observations.

1. The voting process matters. An abundance of political science research has shown that how a vote is conducted will affect the outcome of that vote. The process to select a Speaker differs in a number of ways from how votes are done on other matters in Congress, and those differences help explain why it took so long for McCarthy to get elected.

For one thing, rather than deciding the winner based on which party nominee has the most votes, a Speaker candidate must win an absolute majority of all ballots cast for a named candidate, and lawmakers can vote for anyone they like. That permitted dissidents to register their objections to McCarthy by voting for Jim Jordan (R-OH), Byron Donalds (R-FL), or others, and the result was a stalemate, since no candidate had the absolute majority needed to be elected.

In addition, while votes in the House are usually cast electronically, and lawmakers can vote at any time while the voting clock is open, in Speaker elections legislators cast their ballots by voice one at a time, in alphabetical order. Not only does that take longer, but it also allows representatives near the start of the alphabet to influence others with their vote, as may have happened when Lauren Boebert (R-CO), whose position on McCarthy’s candidacy was unclear, opposed McCarthy in the first round of balloting.

In addition, when voting for Speaker, a legislator who refrains from voting the first time their name is called has a second chance to do so once everyone’s name is spoken. Gaetz took advantage of this on Friday night by waiting to vote until the very last minute, giving him the appearance of a “kingmaker” and garnering national attention for himself by torpedoing McCarthy’s candidacy, albeit temporarily.

It should be noted that some elements of the voting process actually helped McCarthy. The length of each vote (about an hour) gave him and his allies more time to lobby lawmakers. Also, as Greg Koger observes, the “absolute majority” rule kept Jeffries from being elected Speaker, even though he earned the plurality of votes on most of the ballots.

Another advantage for McCarthy was that “present” votes are not counted towards the total, reducing the number of ballots a candidate needs to win. This allowed McCarthy to offer that avenue as an “out” for dissidents, including four who, on the last ballot, flipped from voting for other candidates to voting present. (As @ProcessParty noted on Twitter, that meant that a majority of lawmakers who participated in the vote didn't actually support McCarthy (212 Jeffries + 6 voting present).)

2. Organized party factions are seldom monolithic. Many press accounts described the Republican dissidents as members of the Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative 40-plus lawmakers known for being unafraid to challenge their own party’s leaders. Though mostly true, a few of the dissidents were not members of the Caucus at all -- including Gaetz, the center of the drama on Friday night. Furthermore, the majority of the Freedom Caucus consistently voted for McCarthy, and Caucus founder Jim Jordan (R-OH) lobbied hard on McCarthy’s behalf.

This split within the Freedom Caucus helped McCarthy insofar as it meant he had fewer dissidents to deal with than if the entire Caucus had opposed him. At the same time, it meant McCarthy could not win the entire Caucus as a bloc; instead, he and his allies had to lobby lawmakers individually. And while some Caucus members, like Chip Roy (R-TX), were “procedural” dissidents who were willing to support McCarthy in exchange for rules changes, others like Boebert seemed to relish the spotlight (as Seth Masket explains) or had personal beefs with McCarthy, so their votes could not be easily won.

The bigger point is that it can be misleading to view organized factions like the House Freedom Caucus as single, monolithic entities. They often consist of members with diverse preferences who may disagree on policy and strategy. Indeed, despite its demonstrated power as a voting bloc, the Freedom Caucus has had internal divisions ever since it was first founded in 2015. 3. Outsiders are less influential in congressional leadership elections. McCarthy spent years wooing Donald Trump in the hopes that Trump would get Republicans to support him for Speaker when his party was in the majority. “There’s not a place for [Freedom Caucus members] to survive in this world” without Trump, he told reporter Robert Draper.

It's possible that Trump’s initial endorsement did help McCarthy get some Republican votes in the weeks leading up to the Speaker election. But the remaining GOP dissidents were not readily swayed by Trump, as Lauren Boebert made clear in a floor speech on Wednesday. And though Trump did talk to some of them during the Friday night votes, and McCarthy later gave Trump considerable credit for the win, others like Matt Rosendale (R-MT) pointedly refused to talk to the former president.

Matt Rosendale (R-MT) declines to speak with Donald Trump during the Friday night balloting.

McCarthy should not have been surprised by this. In our examination of congressional leadership elections going back to the 1960s, Doug Harris and I found that “outsider” strategies like getting non-members to endorse a candidate are, at best, necessary but not sufficient to win an election. Legislators are driven more by their own goals and objectives and by the campaign tactics of leadership candidates. In Speaker elections particularly, personal grievances with the party's nominee, and how much lawmakers value party loyalty, also matter.

4. Managing a party coalition can be difficult and messy. McCarthy’s travails underscore the fact that building and maintaining a party coalition in Congress is hard, especially when the party has a narrow majority. Lawmakers from the same party are never in unanimous agreement on everything, and the laborious bargaining that went into McCarthy’s victory (as described here, here, here, and here) are part and parcel of what congressional leaders have to do on difficult votes. Newt Gingrich (in 1997) and Nancy Pelosi (in 2019) had to lobby a number of their fellow partisans to get themselves elected Speaker.

The $64,000 question is whether this bodes ill for the House GOP in the coming two years. Jonathan Bernstein and others have made a strong case that it does. Several dissidents still hold the new Speaker in disdain. McCarthy made a number of tactical errors, like hosting a party meeting on Tuesday in which rebels were threatened with punishment and McCarthy insisted that he “earned” the speakership, which suggest that he is not very good at whipping lawmakers. He also agreed to major rules changes to win the speakership that could weaken his ability to build coalitions. (His claim that the conflict taught him and his colleagues “how to govern” was not especially reassuring.)

However, passing bills on the floor isn’t the same thing as winning a speakership election. McCarthy may be able to get Democrats to make up for GOP defections on some bills. A changing political environment can also create more internal party unity. Such was the case after a two-month, 133-ballot contested election for Speaker in 1855. As Jeff Jenkins and Charles Stewart explain in their excellent book Fighting for the Speakership, the amorphous coalition of Republicans and Know-Nothings that elected Nathaniel Banks as Speaker that year soon unified around opposition to slavery as the issue become more salient nationally. This week’s Speaker election will go down in history as one of the most exciting, dramatic, and consequential in a century. It also serves as a useful case study of how Congress and congressional parties work -- and don’t work -- today.

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