New Republican House Leadership

[ Posted Thursday, June 19th, 2014 – 17:14 UTC ]

The votes are in, and the Republican House caucus has just elected Kevin McCarthy as their new Majority Leader and Steve Scalise as their new Majority Whip. All of this was precipitated, of course, by the current Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, being handed his hat by the voters in his home district. After a roughly one-week "campaign" (which many have likened to a high school popularity contest such as the election of class president), McCarthy will now move up from the third-ranking Republican leadership position to the second, and Scalise will now take over from McCarthy.

What does this mean for the Republican Party, the House, and Congress? Well, it's really too early to say, so instead of hard-nosed analysis, I'm just going to engage in some speculation. Consider yourselves warned, up front.

To begin with, an examination of the division of responsibilities is in order. The majority party in the House is the only place where there is a three-tier leadership ladder. In the Senate, there is no parallel to the Speaker of the House position (technically, Vice President Biden is the presiding officer, and this position is largely symbolic in any case) -- for both the majority and minority party, there is only a leader and a whip position. Harry Reid is the current Majority Leader and Mitch McConnell is the Minority Leader. In the House, however, the majority party gets not only a leader and whip position, but the added bonus of naming the powerful position of Speaker of the House. The House Speaker, currently John Boehner, sets the overall direction of both his caucus and the chamber. The Majority Leader controls the nuts-and-bolts legislative agenda, which means deciding which bills will come up for votes (although, obviously, John Boehner is also able to bring bills to the floor, on occasion). The Majority Whip, like all whip jobs, is in charge of counting and rounding up the votes on his side of the political aisle ("whipping" the votes into place) for each bill.

The shift from Cantor to McCarthy as Majority Leader likely won't be groundshaking. Boehner is still in charge of Republicans' direction, and McCarthy will likely not be all that different than Cantor was in terms of which issues and bills he chooses to move forward in the normal course of legislating. The biggest possible difference between the two men is, ironically, over immigration. McCarthy comes from a district in California which -- unlike many "safe" Republican House districts -- contains a large percentage of Latino voters. He has been much more open to comprehensive immigration reform (likely as a direct result of this demographic reality) than Cantor ever was. This is ironic because the conventional wisdom (right or wrong) inside the Beltway is that Cantor lost his primary because he was painted as too liberal on immigration. So he got Tea Partied out of his seat (and the leadership) only to be replaced as Majority Leader by someone even more liberal on the subject.

Even so, it's hard to see McCarthy start his tenure as Majority Leader by immediately scheduling any votes on immigration reform. The Republican Party would not exactly be happy if McCarthy moved to vote on immigration before the midterm elections, and it's hard to see him convincing many House Republicans to take the issue up next year, either. About the best that could be said is that he might -- just might, mind you -- be a bit more open to negotiating a compromise bill with the Senate, after the midterms are over.

How will McCarthy fare at being one of the spokesmen for House Republicans? That's an open question -- few have ever heard him interviewed (for instance) on the Sunday morning political chatfest television shows. Will he present a substantially different face of the party than Cantor? Again, an open question. One Washington Post pundit has already unleashed some snark at McCarthy's ability to phrase a talking point (or even "his command of the English language"), but the quotes used may have been taken out of context, so we'll have to give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt -- at least until he does his first round of the Sunday shows.

The bigger question is McCarthy's competence in bridging the serious divide between the Establishment Republicans in the House and the Tea Party faction. This question exists mainly because of a few past high-profile failures from McCarthy in his role as Majority Whip. Speakers count on their whips to accurately report whether any particular bill has enough votes among the majority party to be passed (no matter how the minority party votes), and John Boehner has had some notable and embarrassing setbacks in this regard. Boehner moved a number of important bills to the House floor in the last few years, only to see them fail because enough Republicans didn't vote for them. Boehner also had to yank other bills at the last minute (by cancelling scheduled floor votes), when it became apparent that he didn't have his Republican votes accurately counted. Both cases represent a core failure of the whip to do his job correctly. Meaning McCarthy may not have an overwhelming amount of leverage over members of his own caucus. What this bodes for his new job is anyone's guess, really.

The real change in direction for the House Republicans comes from Scalise's ascension to Majority Whip. Having a staunch red-state conservative as whip is going to be a bigger ideological change than having McCarthy replace Cantor. This could go a number of ways. Starting with the most charitable, it could mean that Speaker Boehner gets much more accurate information about the relative support any individual bill can muster among Republicans. One might assume that Tea Party members could be more open about their opposition to a bill when talking to one of their own (rather than they have been with the more centrist McCarthy). This might mean Boehner moves fewer bills to a vote, but it would also mean that when he did push a bill on the floor, he would be a lot more confident that he actually did have enough votes to pass it.

However, having Scalise as Majority Whip may mean a lot more struggle within the leadership itself. Boehner has had problems with Cantor in the past, when contentious must-pass issues (like the debt ceiling votes, for instance) come up. Perhaps Boehner and McCarthy will get along better in this regard, but Boehner may have a lot more to argue about when it comes to setting the Republican agenda when he meets with Scalise. Scalise has seen that even Cantor's disagreements with Boehner's agenda did nothing to insulate him from a Tea Party challenger in the primaries -- so Scalise may be more inclined to dig in his heels if he feels Boehner is going against the Tea Party's wishes. This all may translate into much more contention (if that can even be imagined) among the highest ranks of House Republicans during legislative showdowns (such as fiscal cliffs or government shutdowns). In other words, having Scalise in the leadership may in fact further widen the chasm between the Establishment Republican wing and the Tea Partiers.

As I mentioned at the start, however, this is all nothing more than idle speculation. The leadership election just happened today, and it will be next month before the changeover actually happens (meaning no real change will likely even become evident until after the August congressional break). When lawmakers return, they will be completely focused on getting themselves re-elected, so it's hard to see Republicans choosing to openly squabble about much of anything before November. It likely won't be until next year that we'll see any tangible change in leadership style from the House Republicans. This is made even more certain by the fact that all budget battles have been essentially postponed until after the midterms, by agreements previously reached. We may not fully see what today's vote means for both the Republican Party and for Congress in general until the next budgetary showdown in Washington.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “New Republican House Leadership”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    The Majority Whip, like all whip jobs, is in charge of counting and rounding up the votes on his side of the political aisle

    Since racism seems to be a common theme around here (unfortunately) I find it rather odd that such terminology is still allowed, what with the negative connotations of whipping people into line...

    I mean, people on the Left complained about the Master/Slave nomenclature of computer hard drives, fer chreest's sake!!..

    People are STILL whining about the Washington Redskins which is utterly ridiculous..

    I can't imagine why the House/Senate "Whip" has escaped such Leftist hysterical scrutiny...

    Anyways, I just found that amusing.. :D

    As to your commentary, as always, a great one.

    As I am always constrained to point out, I think you put too much emphasis on the inter-Party rivalries and contentiousness of the Republican Party. As history has shown us, inter-Party fights can be downright nasty and brutal, yet the Party in question comes out of it on top..

    The 2008 Democrat Primary is a perfect example... The Dem Party going at it worse than cats and dogs and things worked out OK for them..

    Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the country, but that is not the point here..

    Long story short (too late :D) I don't think the rivalries are going to be as damaging to the Republican Party as ya'all are hoping...

    Democrats are still not going to get the House.

    Democrats are still going to lose the Senate.

    At most, all we are seeing here is a little sideshow entertainment for the Left Wing...


  2. [2] 
    akadjian wrote:

    How could Boehner possibly move "fewer bills to a vote"?

    Heh. Sorry, CW. Just had to say it.


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    How could Boehner possibly move "fewer bills to a vote"?

    Heh. Sorry, CW. Just had to say it.

    We saw exactly how after Reid tossed a couple nukes in the Senate... :D


Comments for this article are closed.