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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    Speaker fight delivers hopeful change

    The concessions demanded of new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., by the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus may, as speculated, weaken his position as leader of the chamber. But it also produced some reforms that could actually make Congress more deliberative and responsive.

    Over the course of a contentious week, Republicans took 15 votes for speaker before finally pushing McCarthy over the top late Friday. The roughly 20 far-right members who were opposing his selection held out for significant changes in how the GOP caucus will operate.

    Some of the concessions demanded by the dissenters stand out as clear improvements to the status quo.

    For example, McCarthy agreed to hold separate votes on the 12 appropriations bills, rather than bundling them together in a giant year-end package, as was recently the case with the $1.65 trillion omnibus spending bill.

    Approving spending will become a longer and more arduous process, but it will also allow for more scrutiny of outlays and hopefully encourage Congress to set priorities for how it spends taxpayer money.

    McCarthy also promised to give House members 72 hours to review bills before they come to the floor. It's hardly a radical notion that representatives should know what's in a bill before they're asked to give it their vote.

    And he promised not to use his Congressional Leadership Fund to influence the outcome of open primary seats that are considered safe for the GOP. This will make it harder for him to stack the caucus with loyalists.

    The House will now be required to vote before raising the debt limit, which offers the possibility, albeit slim, of bringing fiscal discipline to Congress.

    Other concessions are off of the far-right wish list, including a new committee to investigate government investigations. Promises to hold votes on congressional term limits and border security and capping domestic and defense spending at pre-Biden administration levels have little chance of coming to fruition due to Democratic control of the Senate and White House.

    There's no question McCarthy will have to work harder than his predecessor, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, to hold his caucus together. Among the promises he made was to add more Freedom Caucus members to the House Rules Committee. That's bound to give him a perpetual headache.

    He also accepted a demand to reinstate "motion to vacate" rules that will allow a single House member to start the process of removing the speaker. That could hamstring McCarthy, but it is how the House operated throughout most of its history until the rule was changed by Pelosi.

    Weakening the iron grip the speaker has on the caucus offers some hope that representatives will stop falling into the party line and feel safer voting according to their own views and the needs of their districts.

    Certainly, the week was awkward for Republicans. But it was also a useful civics lessons for Americans who got the rare opportunity to see inside the closed rooms where such arm-twisting and horse-trading usually play out.

    In the end, chaos was averted, Republicans got the speaker most of them wanted, and it produced at least some changes that should make Congress better.


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