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Jim Talent Opinion: The Unnecessary and Unhelpful Fight for Speaker

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I am not alone in wondering why Andy Biggs and a few other Republican House members are determined not to support Kevin McCarthy for speaker when the new Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3. Evidently Biggs and his followers think McCarthy is too identified with the Republican establishment. It’s also been reported that Biggs believes McCarthy wasn’t loyal enough to Donald Trump, which would be curious if true, since Trump himself is supporting McCarthy’s candidacy.

Whatever their reasons, Biggs and his followers are engaged in a foolish and dangerous effort: Foolish, because it is highly unlikely to achieve any productive end, and dangerous because it imperils the entire agenda of the Republican House, most of which Biggs and his friends will support if and when they permit their colleagues to pursue it.

Here is the process by which the speaker of the House is chosen.

Within a few days after every general election, both parties caucus to choose their leaders, who will then be their nominees for speaker when Congress convenes two months later. In fact, the first business of a new House of Representatives (after determining that a quorum is present) is to elect a speaker by a majority vote of the members-elect who are present and voting.

No other business can be done until the speaker is chosen: no adoption of rules, no appointment of committee members, no committee hearings – including investigative hearings – and no legislative work. None. The members-elect can’t even be sworn in without a speaker. All they can do is vote again and again until someone gets a majority of those present and choosing to cast a vote.

Even just fighting over the speaker’s election sucks the air out of the majority’s substantive agenda. In this case it means the Republican leaders are not planning the work of the select committee on China, or how the Judiciary committee will conduct its investigation of the FBI, or the best way to make the Biden Administration actually police the border. They are instead trying to deal with Andy Biggs in a way that will ensure the will of the Republican Conference actually translates into the election of a speaker.

All of this is why voting for your party’s speaker nominee is, for members of Congress, the defining characteristic of party membership. If you run for Congress as a Republican, it means you want the Republicans to control the House, which means you want a Republican for speaker. The leader/speaker has to be chosen somehow, and the post-election caucus vote, with whoever gets a majority being the winner, is the method most consistent with our principles and traditions.

I suppose there are alternatives to that process, but the alternative should not and never will be “the speaker is whomever Andy Biggs wants.”

In short, the vote for speaker is not a conscience vote or a policy vote or a sign of faith in the party establishment or a commitment to support any particular aspect of any particular agenda. It’s not even a signal that you think your leader will be a particularly good speaker. It’s the alternative to either turning control over to the other party or to legislative anarchy that at best damages and at worst collapses the potential of your own political movement.

That’s especially true here, because Biggs and his followers have done nothing, or at least nothing effective, to position any other Republican to emerge quickly if McCarthy’s candidacy fails. What we are likely to see instead is repeated balloting for speaker and growing frustration among the 85 percent of House Republicans who voted for McCarthy in the caucus and who, quite understandably, do not want a small circle of their colleagues to choose the Republican leader against the will of the majority.

Again, nothing I have said means that any member of Congress has to vote for any measure on McCarthy’s agenda.

It’s true that the speaker, once installed, has certain powers which he can use to pressure members to vote against their principles. But it is also true that small groups of backbenchers, particularly in a narrowly divided House, can exert tremendous counter-pressure to ensure that their rights are respected and their priorities are considered whether the leaders like it or not. All of that is fair game, and a game that skilled members should be able to play if what they want is to affect what the party does rather than burn the party and the House down.

There’s a decent chance that if McCarthy is elected in January, he may end up regretting it; as Paul Ryan and John Boehner and Newt Gingrich found out, the speaker’s job is basically impossible, and McCarthy wouldn’t exactly be getting it under the most favorable circumstances. But he’s worked hard for the post, he is highly skilled, and he was chosen by his colleagues through a process that was open and fair to everyone.

As former President Trump observed, McCarthy “deserves a shot” at leading the House.

Biggs and his followers need to find a way to climb down from what is an unsustainable perch. They’ve proven their willingness to fight, and they will have many more and better opportunities over the next two years to get whatever it is they want.

Jim Talent is a former senator from Missouri who also served four terms in the House. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.


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