Apr 23, 2024 - Politics & Policy

How Republicans castrated themselves

Photo illustration of a collage of Chip Roy, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz and Thomas Massie over a pattern of distressed Republican logos.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photos: Kevin Dietsch and Nathan Howard/Getty Images, and Bill Clark and Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Never before has the party in control of the House of Representatives knowingly and willingly castrated its own power so thoroughly as today's Republicans.

Why it matters: Republicans blew years of potential authority by weak leaders surrendering to keep power. So with a razor-thin GOP majority, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) had to depend on Democrats to muscle through the $60 billion Ukraine bill over the weekend.

  • "The structural changes they made, made the place ungovernable," a former member of GOP leadership told Axios.
  • "When you give this many nihilists ... this kind of leverage, this is what's going to happen and it was just a matter of time," they said.

Two mistakes haunt House Republicans, both dating back to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy's fight to win the gavel in January 2023:

  1. Letting any member call a vote on removing the speaker. This gives insurgents like Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) extraordinary power to threaten to oust the party leader any time.
  2. Surrendering authority of the Rules Committee, which sets the terms for how legislation will be handled during votes. After allowing non-loyalists onto the committee, leaders can't depend on getting their way.

Zoom in: The new Rules Committee — with McCarthy-appointed hardliners such as Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Chip Roy (R-Texas) — has become a roadblock. Seven bills were defeated in the past year during the rules process.

  • This is an unprecedented collapse in control: Former Speakers Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan and John Boehner never lost a rules vote.
  • "By not voting for rules, it forces suspension votes that are by definition more bipartisan. ... They are creating what they profess to hate," one House GOP moderate told Axios about their hardliner colleagues.
  • "A party unable to bring its agenda to the floor for a vote is no longer a functional majority," Brendan Buck, a top staffer to both Ryan and Boehner, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

GOP hardliners tried to block legislation again last week, only to have a GOP speaker call their bluff.

  • Democrats crossed the aisle on the Rules Committee for Johnson's foreign aid bills. They did it again for the procedural vote on the House floor — and a third time to pass the Ukraine part of the package.
  • Former Speaker Ryan applauded Johnson: "I think he found his footing, and his voice. ... [H]e did it as a statesman, risking his own personal political fortune for the greater good that he believes in," Ryan told Axios.

The other side: McCarthy allies strongly push back on sharing blame for the chaos.

  • They correctly say they were undoing changes from Pelosi and the longstanding rule was that a single member could call a motion to vacate the speaker's chair.

The bottom line: GOP leaders knew they were sitting on a powder keg.

  • "I told Kevin at the time I thought it was a mistake" to change the motion to vacate, a senior GOP lawmaker told Axios.
  • "He kept saying he wasn't going to agree to it and then he did it. It ended up being his demise."
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