Ford School political experts on chaotic U.S. House speaker election and its implications for power, governing

January 5, 2023

The chaotic election for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives likely will have implications on the power dynamic and governability of the Republican Party, the chamber and Congress itself.

Offering their insights are two experts from the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy: Jonathan Hanson, a political scientist and lecturer in statistics, and Jenna Bednar, a professor of public policy and political science. They explore the Republicans' initial, failed attempts to elect Kevin McCarthy as speaker as they come into the majority and the ripple effects.

What does the indecision so far say about the governability of the House and problems within the Republican party?

Hanson: The House Republican caucus has been ungovernable for quite some time. The difference now, compared to the last time Republicans controlled the House, is the narrowness of the majority. This gives the bomb throwers in the fringe of the party the ability to extract concessions or get a speaker who is aligned with their objectives. Unsurprisingly, most of the holdouts are election deniers. They are not interested in governing but on imposing their views through any means available.

What are the implications of the chaos even after a decision has been made?

Hanson: We are likely headed into a two-year period in which there is paralysis in Congress on every major issue. Not only is there a divide in political control between the House and the Senate, but whoever is elected speaker will have to navigate a politically impossible situation. 

Efforts from the leadership to reach bipartisan compromise could lead to a rebellion from rank-and-file House Republicans. Although there is a scenario in which a moderate Republican speaker could govern from the middle, drawing upon a coalition of members from both parties, our institutions make that outcome very unlikely.

Bednar: This disarray is just a signal of what we can expect throughout the term.

To appease the rebellious members of his party, McCarthy has already agreed to rules changes that would weaken the speaker. In effect, these rules weaken the party's ability to articulate an agenda and to check presidential power through negotiation.  

Who benefits or is advantaged by the dysfunction?

Hanson: Republicans performed very poorly in the midterm elections relative to historical patterns, gaining only a narrow majority in the House and losing a seat in the Senate. The current dysfunction shows that the hard core of the party has not learned any lessons from this outcome, and this does not bode well for the party in future elections. 

Ultimately, if the Republicans cannot govern the House of Representatives when given a majority, why should voters entrust their party with other offices?

Bednar: In effect, these rules weaken the party's ability to articulate an agenda and to check presidential power through negotiation. Polarization has already weakened Congress in relation to the executive. The rebellious members say that they are working for the people rather than the party, but ironically, they are empowering the president at the expense of the people's branch.

It clears the deck for Republican presidential candidates to shape the party's future. Without the Senate and the president, it would be hard for the Republicans to advance an agenda, but they could have at least articulated a vision for the country to counter the Democratic agenda. 

The internal fighting means that no Republican vision will emerge from Congress. The presidential candidates and eventual nominee can lay out their own vision without needing to negotiate with Congress.

This Q&A was prepared by Jeff Karoub of Michigan News.