Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Inside Speaker, Outside Speaker

David Super

      When an organization selects a leader, it typically must decide to whom that leader will primarily relate.  Many organizations want their leader to interact with the outside world:  to recruit new members, to raise funds, to forge new alliances, and generally to give the rest of the world a positive view of the organization.  But someone also needs to attend to the internal workings of the organization, resolving disputes, getting everyone to do their part, and so forth.  Perceptions about the organization’s greatest current needs often will dictate who is a plausible candidate to be its leader. 

     Immediately after World War II, this country selected a series of presidents seen primarily as outside leaders, as leaders that would preserve our interests and security in the world at large.  Our subsequent shift to electing former governors with little foreign policy experience reflected the desire for inside leaders.  Chief justices, federal and state, can be loosely sorted into outside-facing and inside-facing versions.  This same pattern is evident in other kinds of organizations, very much including academic institutions.  One of the first questions presidential or dean search committees must make is whether they want an outside leader or an inside leader; deeply dysfunctional schools heedlessly choosing outside leaders have produced sensational meltdowns. 

     Sometimes these roles can be divided:  some countries’ constitutions empower a president to be outward-facing and a prime minister to be inward-facing; some educational institutions have important provosts or deputy deans to handle internal matters; partisan legislative conferences may have outward-facing leaders and inward-facing whips.  These arrangements only work, however, if the outward-facing and inward-facing leaders can cooperate effectively, with the inward-facing official able to deliver on the outward-facing leader’s commitments for the organization and the outward-facing leader reinforcing the inward-facing leader’s authority to settle internal disputes. 

     Kevin McCarthy was a classic outward-facing Speaker of the House.  On one level, the desire for an outward-facing Speaker made sense:  the House Republicans have a problematic public image that contributed to their dramatically underperforming in an off-year election.  Putting on a positive, reassuring face for other major players in government and for the general public could certainly help.  And in the short term, it did:  President Biden’s naïve feeling that he could work with Speaker McCarthy caused him to disregard warnings that he needed to de-fang the debt limit before the country reached the brink; he likely would have behaved more prudently with a fire-breathing Freedom Caucus Speaker.

     Yet Kevin McCarthy’s speakership was fundamentally misguided from the beginning.  Deep divisions in the House Republican Caucus, combined with their narrow majority, their adamant belief that bipartisanship is treasonous, and intermittent interventions from former President Trump, urgently required the focus of an inward-facing leader.  House Majority Leader Scalise could not play that role:  he had been imposed on the Establishment leadership years earlier to settle another far-right revolt and had never gotten along with Speaker McCarthy – yet he also had lost his constituency on the far-right for adhering to principles of collective leadership.  House Majority Whip Tom Emmer had won his position in a divisive fight with a farther-right candidate; the far right trusted his candor but not his policy judgments.  To make matters worse, some self-serving far-right Members constantly need to stir the pot to promote their personal political fundraising and while swing-district Members desperately needed to minimize their votes for extreme positions while avoiding primary challenges from the right. 

     Nobody of any ideological persuasion should mourn Speaker McCarthy’s demise.  His appearance of reasonableness was obviously a mirage:  whatever beliefs he might have held were not going to affect how he exercised power, he was incapable of speaking for much of his conference, and his fealty to the embargo on bipartisanship all the way to the end gave absolute power to the most extreme Members of his Conference.  And even when he did make deals – to the left or to the right – he would not keep them.  The reality of divided government is that the White House, the Senate, and probably the House Democrats need to be able to negotiate with a far-right, proudly Trumpist, House Republican Conference.  And that Conference’s state of internal disorganization is such that that was not going to be possible with Kevin McCarthy – or Patrick McHenry or Tom Emmer or a “moderate” Republican leading the “coalition government” naïve commentators insisted on imagining. 

     Speaker Mike Johnson is the inward-facing Speaker the House Republican Caucus requires.  Swing district Republicans – they are not actually moderates but fervently pretend to be on TV – succeeded in scuttling Rep. Jim Jordan out of the conviction that his well-defined public image would drag them down the way Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s image weighed down swing-district Democrats over the years.  But the Speaker they unanimously endorsed is every bit as right-wing.  With swing district Republicans fearing primary challengers too much to cast high-profile moderating votes and far-right Members more than willing to scuttle the Conference’s public image to raise some cash, Speaker Johnson truly is representative of his conference. 

     Early indicators are that his ascension has largely patched over the conference’s divisions, at least for now.  Because far-right Members trust him, and because their antics were beginning to threaten a rupture with more Establishment donors, he evidently has a fair amount of tactical freedom moving forward.  This could plausibly result in an extension of the Continuing Resolution (CR) set to expire on November 17, at least postponing a government shutdown. 

     Whether Speaker Johnson has the skills and wisdom to make the most of this latitude remains to be seen.  He is insisting that his price for extending the CR would be further domestic budget cuts below the levels set in this summer’s debt limit bill, which will be a non-starter in the Senate and with President Biden.  Repeat players in Washington, regardless of party, simply cannot afford to allow anyone to breach agreements with them, no matter the political cost. 

     We will get an early sense of the extent of his political skill, and the degree to which the far right feels the need to stay quiet now that the Speaker is obviously one of them, when we see how Speaker Johnson handles his inability to reopen this summer’s budget deal as a price for a new CR.  Democrats will have little trouble pinning any November government shutdown on House Republicans:  having wasted half of the time provided by the last CR on their internal dysfunction, they made completing the appropriations process in the ordinary course effectively impossible.  Unless Speaker Johnson is remarkably dense, he will recognize that and cover his capitulation to a CR at current levels by getting Democrats to add some unrelated, non-controversial legislation to the CR that Speaker Johnson can claim is achieving a major Republican priority. 

     Another early measure of Speaker Johnson’s political skill will be the Administration’s request for supplemental appropriations for Israel, Ukraine, and the southern border.  As a technical matter, existing law allows President Biden to do a great deal to help both Israel and Ukraine on his own.  Therefore, the White House and congressional backers of this legislation are unlikely to be desperate enough to make major concessions to move it through.  Still, a strong tradition calls for giving Congress the opportunity to add its bipartisan voice to support the country’s overseas allies in times of crisis; should House Republicans refuse to do so, they will pay a political cost. 

     Speaker Johnson’s initial moves here have been rather clumsy as well.  He acknowledged that Russian President Putin will continue wars of aggression elsewhere if not stopped in Ukraine yet he says he does not want aid to Ukraine included in this package.  He seems to be trying to justify this by demanding “safeguards” that U.S. aid is not lining corrupt officials’ pockets, yet neither the White House nor the Ukrainian government have objected to any audit or monitoring proposals that have been floated.  Although Ukraine has had some problems with domestic funds being drained by corrupt overcharges, most U.S. aid has come in the form of weapons transfers, and no credible evidence has emerged of misuse of any of the money we have sent.  Senate Republicans will clearly vote for a package combining Israel and Ukraine. 

     Speaker Johnson also claims that he wants to “offset” the reduced aid package he would provide to Israel with domestic budget cuts.  This is clearly not required by budget process rules, which allow emergency designations for just this kind of situation.  It is not required by precedent:  those emergency designations have routinely allowed aid of this kind to pass without offsets under Administrations and Congresses of both parties.  Even more absurdly, House Republicans’ proposed “offset” – defunding the Internal Revenue Service’s efforts against tax cheats – would dramatically increase the deficit by reducing revenues.  (House Republicans address this inconvenient reality by including a provision in their bill directing budgetary scorekeepers to neglect the revenue losses in estimating the fiscal effects of their bill.)  This is farce. 

     Although the House Republican Conference’s transitory desire for unity may allow Speaker Johnson to pass whatever version of Israel aid legislation he wants in the first instance, but when the Senate sends back legislation supporting both Israel and Ukraine (and without the deficit, the choice will be quite stark.  At the end of the day, House Republicans can refuse to pass legislation to aid Israel and Ukraine if they like.  But demanding accountability that nobody is resisting and trying to hold this aid hostage to domestic priorities that actually exacerbate the problem they claim to be addressing is unlikely to provide House Republicans with much political cover.  Whether Speaker Johnson can find a way in the end to move such legislation to allow his Reagan Republican Members to claim credit for helping Ukraine while avoiding a rebellion from his pro-Putin Members will tell us a lot about how effective an inside Speaker he will be. 

     On annual appropriations, on Israel and Ukraine, and on other issues, House Republicans’ choices remain structurally similar.  They can negotiate with the Senate and the White House, achieving real concessions but not the revolution many of them demand.  Or they can insist on demands patently unacceptable to the other players, provoke a crisis, and ultimately have to capitulate when public opinion turns sharply against them.  In the latter scenario, their leverage to obtain concessions will be severely compromised. 

     Worse still, House Republicans can provoke a crisis with implausible demands, suffer a backlash from the electorate, but then splinter as to whether to prolong the crisis or to settle.  In that case, trying to settle while their far-right Members hold firm will force them to seek House Democrats’ votes, which will make significant concessions all but unattainable.  That was the dilemma that Speaker McCarthy could never resolve.  Perhaps an inside Speaker with his conference’s trust can do better.  If not, his Members will suffer even more political damage and obtain even fewer policy results. 


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