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Mike Johnson Tries to Do the Impossible
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Mike Johnson Tries to Do the Impossible

Could the speaker open the door to a new era of deliberation for the House?

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson arrives for a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on April 20, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

When Rep. Mike Johnson became speaker of the House in late October 2023, many observers expressed their condolences. He had gone from comfortably occupying a low rung on House Republicans’ leadership ladder to having to wrangle the narrowest and most fractious majority in living memory. His predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, had struggled from the first day of the 118th Congress to see how he might try to govern with the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Joe Biden while somehow remaining acceptable to his party’s angry right flank. By choosing cooperation, McCarthy lost the House Freedom Caucus’ confidence without winning the esteem of House Democrats. When Rep. Matt Gaetz forced a vote on his political survival, McCarthy was out

Johnson came to the speaker’s chair with far less baggage and much more goodwill from Gaetz and other insurgents who had, after all, put him there. Yet it wasn’t obvious that he could do any better at the job. His fundamental dilemma remained identical to McCarthy’s: The House is supposed to legislate, which requires bipartisan cooperation, but to Gaetz and his MAGA Republican allies, any compromise with Democrats is a fundamental betrayal of the American people. It seemed that Johnson had an impossible task. Indeed, as of this week, a few members are ready to throw him out, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene saying, “I don’t care if the Speaker’s office becomes a revolving door.” 

But while his future is anything but certain, Johnson has intimated a new working model for the House. He has managed to facilitate bipartisan governance in a hyperpartisan moment, and he has made himself a shining example of a willingness to put policy convictions before partisan bickering. He will probably keep his job longer than McCarthy, and his speakership has a chance to be remembered as a turning point for the House. 

To understand Johnson’s speakership requires understanding something about the GOP’s high hopes for the 118th Congress. When they won a narrow majority in 2022, Republicans hoped to follow the Tea Party Congress that came out of the 2010 midterm, standing against the Obama administration’s excesses and extracting the Budget Control Act of 2011 from a debt ceiling showdown. Though far from perfect, Republicans justifiably regard the legislation as a real accomplishment in limiting spending under a Democratic administration. 

But GOP legislators of the present have been far less unified in their demands during debt ceiling negotiations. For a while, Biden simply dismissed them as unruly rabble not worth dealing with. There was even talk from Democrats of a discharge petition to move a clean debt limit increase. Yet, in the happiest moment of McCarthy’s speakership, Republicans united around a bill that enacted a large chunk of their agenda—including spending cuts—while also raising the debt ceiling. That led the White House to finally negotiate with McCarthy. In May 2023 they settled on the Fiscal Responsibility Act, a fairly middle-of-the-road compromise that did little to satisfy the House Freedom Caucus’ high hopes for transformative change. The law was far less ambitious than the Budget Control Act, capping discretionary spending for just two years and leaving trillion-dollar deficits in place. 

Conservative Republicans were infuriated and broke with McCarthy, opposing the resolution to bring the bill to the floor.* McCarthy had to rely on Democratic votes to set the agenda—highly unusual for a procedural question. But he never transitioned from thinking of Democrats as his needed partners. Instead, McCarthy talked out of both sides of his mouth and hoped for the best. 

Out of one side of his mouth, he gave his party’s hardliners hope for lower spending levels in the fall, claiming that the May debt deal was a “ceiling,” not a “floor.” He went through the motions of breaking spending legislation into 12 substantive bills, each to be considered on its merits, rather than in last-minute omnibus packages that force members to swallow whatever leadership dictated. In the process of working out these bills, Republicans indulged in some wild fantasies (such as cutting the secretary of defense’s salary to $1) and had great labor pains in birthing bills they could take into negotiations with Democrats. Sometimes they managed an internal consensus; other times they fractured spectacularly, most notably when their agriculture bill failed in a 191-237 floor vote. 

Even when House Republicans did pass these partisan bills, though, there was little sign that their efforts were feeding into the actual process of lawmaking. That’s because, as he struggled to get his conference together, out of the other side of his mouth McCarthy tried to somehow move a more-or-less normal bipartisan spending process toward completion—apparently based on the spending levels worked out in the spring, even if doing so would enrage his right flank. Having progressed very little, he negotiated with Democrats to keep the government open at the end of September with a clean continuing resolution. 

Then things fell apart. Gaetz filed his motion to vacate. Although Democrats were glad McCarthy had helped avoid a shutdown, they didn’t see any reason to save someone they fundamentally mistrusted and was offering them no formal share of power. And so McCarthy lost his gavel (and would go on to leave the House before the year was up).

After a wild scramble to find a new speaker, Mike Johnson inherited McCarthy’s bundle of conflicting promises, though everyone understood they weren’t of his making. Nevertheless, amid some outright failed votes on other spending bills, Johnson decided to play the same game as his predecessor: trying to advance normal (“business as usual,” to its critics) governance while promising his fellow conservatives that they would get some big wins.

Johnson’s main innovation in performing this tightrope walk on spending was the “laddered CR,” which put different spending bills on different funding deadlines. He first raised this possibility less than a week after winning the gavel, hinting that there would be fully 12 steps—a different duration of funding for each of the subject-specific appropriations bills. That suggested that the summer’s partisan bills might drive the process, and Democrats came out strongly against the idea. Their opposition was surely the new speaker’s greatest asset in maintaining the GOP conference’s trust.

Before long, however, the ladder became a stepstool, with just two separate funding lengths for two groups of six areas each. Though his announcement of the protocol promised great advantage in the “fight for conservative victories,” what Johnson was ultimately promising instead of one big omnibus was merely two half-sized omnibuses. It would take three extra continuing resolutions to bring the process to its conclusion, and when it finally did so, topline levels were those specified in the Fiscal Responsibility Act passed under McCarthy. Conservatives got some substantive concessions—increased funding for immigration enforcement, the termination of a House DEI office, and an end to funding for the controversial UNRWA, for example—but Johnson’s right-wing critics were certainly correct to think he had failed to shake up the spending process. Notwithstanding his promises when he became speaker, Johnson confronted his members with a take-it-or-leave-it vote without opportunities for amendments, much to his critics’ chagrin. On each of the spending bills, Johnson brought the bill forward using suspension of the rules (requiring a two-thirds vote and allowing no amendments) rather than proceeding through the Rules Committee as any important legislation usually would. On the second omnibus, most Republicans voted no. 

The laddered CR can hardly be seen as a stunning success in retrospect, but Johnson did make it through the process without any government shutdowns. He had forged a better working relationship with Democrats than McCarthy had. And he still retained the confidence of most GOP members. 

That left Johnson to figure out the tricky matter of the foreign aid supplemental passed by the Senate, which provided $95 billion in support for U.S. allies Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. There were no hard deadlines here, and his party may have been even more deeply divided, with MAGA-aligned members having turned decisively against any additional funding for Ukraine but a significant portion of GOP members, including many of its committee chairmen, deeply passionate about the need to support Ukraine’s defense against Russia. Meanwhile, after Iran’s attack on Israel on April 13, passing support for Israel came to seem increasingly urgent to most members of the GOP. 

For a while, it looked like Johnson might just bring the Senate’s package up under suspension of the rules. It would probably have cleared the 290 votes needed for passage. But since some progressives are implacably against Israel funding and dozens of Republicans are implacably against Ukraine funding, that vote would have been too close for comfort. Moreover, given that the funding bill evoked such passions and committed such a huge amount, critics of the bill were right to argue that they deserved an opportunity to meaningfully deliberate on them. Johnson seemed paralyzed, and there was once again serious talk of a discharge petition—with one effort that would have teed up the Senate bill without Johnson’s consent getting 195 of the 218 required signatures.

Johnson found a way to reassert control by proposing to break the Senate’s bill into four different pieces: Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and a miscellaneous “sidecar” that would get various House priorities attached to it, (including a TikTok divestment measure). “I think the final product will be something that everybody can take confidence in because they got to vote their district and vote their conscience,” Johnson announced as he sought to revive the Rules Committee’s potential to shape the agenda. 

The critical reaction was fierce, saying that Johnson was essentially making himself an agent of Democrats. Three Republicans who got their seats on the Rules Committee in McCarthy’s January struggle for the speakership (Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Chip Roy of Texas, and Ralph Norman of South Carolina) quickly announced that they would have no part in the action, meaning that it would require a bipartisan coalition operating through the Rules Committee—and again on the floor of the House—to bring up the four bills for votes. Greene prepared (though did not act on) a motion to vacate the chair. 

If they had wanted to embrace maximum partisan confrontation and watch Johnson twist in the wind, Democrats could simply have sunk the rule, saying that Republicans were too divided to make reliable partners in governing, and tried to bring the discharge petition to fruition. Instead, they decided to make common cause with Johnson and Republican supporters of Ukraine. All Democrats supported the rule in committee, setting up a quick but not entirely perfunctory legislative process that included a few opportunities for amendments to get votes. Even Greene was given an amendment—one that would have zeroed out Ukraine funding in the Ukraine funding bill. The rare bipartisan rule got huge support on the floor, setting up a series of Saturday votes on the underlying bills. Each sailed through with more than 300 votes, a notable feat in our polarized era. 

On final passage, the Ukraine bill got 101 Republican “yeas” and 112 Republican “nays.” In the lingo of the House, the majority was “rolled” and the Hastert Rule was violated. Johnson’s detractors say that in letting Democrats have their way on Ukraine, without extracting a border security bill in return, the speaker gave up Republicans’ most valuable leverage and made himself a political lame duck. They might be right. But an immediate ouster now seems very unlikely. If Greene proceeds with her motion, Democrats are likely to join with Republicans to simply table it. For all their complaints about Johnson, and for all of the left-wing media’s attempts to portray him as a religious zealot, they have found him to be a more straightforward operator than McCarthy. They can hope that, if he has decided not to be ruled by his right flank, they might find more opportunities for cooperation in the nine months remaining to this Congress.

What remains to be seen is whether Johnson is willing to act bipartisan from the get-go, including in the Rules Committee. It’s hard to say whether a majority of House Republicans would accept that approach. After all, the idea of a unified party making demands of Democrats and forcing the Senate and Biden administration into concessions retains some luster, even if that dynamic has rarely governed in this Congress, which has so far been historically unproductive. But for governance-minded conservatives, if Johnson and Rules Committee Republicans are willing to work with Democrats from the start, they may well be able to ensure their priorities are better served than by going through months of a purely partisan process that does not feed into real lawmaking. Ironically, by admitting that his party cannot accomplish much on its own, Johnson could make more of Republicans’ majority status. The House, meanwhile, would come into its own as a deliberative, governing body, no longer simply eating whatever the Senate serves it. 

This hope could certainly be squandered. The rift between Johnson and his MAGA critics could become so wide and painful that it swallows up everything else going on in the chamber. A certain former president on the campaign trail could decide to lump Johnson in with his “swamp” opponents and actively work against those Republicans who seek to work with him. Or Democrats and Johnson could fall out, finding it easier to return to partisan habits ahead of the fall election.

All of that is very possible. And yet the remarkable thing is that, rather quietly, Johnson is inhabiting the speakership, getting crucial work done, and surviving to see another day. Turns out, that’s possible too.

Correction, April 23, 2024: This piece originally referred to a bill brought to the House floor as a law.

Philip Wallach is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Why Congress.”