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McCarthy Elected Speaker of the House: Challenges & Barriers

House of Representatives Graphic | Graphic by Monica Brutto | The Wright State Guardian


In the early hours of Saturday, Jan. 7, after 14 unsuccessful votes, the House of Representatives elected Republican Kevin McCarthy as the 55 Speaker of the House for the 118 Congress of the United States.

A historical vote

In the rules of the vote, a nominee must receive a majority of votes plus one to secure the position of speaker. McCarthy struggled during the sessions, as a vocal minority of the Republican party blocked the vote. After making concessions to several holdouts, McCarthy was able to defeat Democrat Hakeem Jeffries with 216 votes to 212. Six Republicans voted present.

The Democrats were united in support of Jeffries throughout the four day process, as Jeffries received every single vote from the Democratic side of the chamber. The Republicans, conversely, seemed divided and at some points confrontational.

According to the House of Representatives historical archives, this was the first Speaker vote in 100 years that required more than one ballot; in 1856, it took 133 ballots over the span of two months to elect a speaker.

Challenges facing the new Congress

The Speaker now faces the challenge of running a House of Representatives with a very slim majority with the Conservative Republican Freedom Caucus having the power to influence party decisions moving forward.

Dr. Sean Wilson, Professor and Political Science Coordinator at Wright State, talked about this issue.

“The only thing the vote did was weaken the Speaker should anyone within his party want to try to replace him. The Freedom Caucus almost tried to do that to John Boehner in 2015,” Wilson said.  “If there are razor thin margins, intra-party dissent becomes easier. As far as future votes go, I expect the Republicans will stick together like glue on most things.”

In finally securing the bid, McCarthy consented to many commitments to cut government spending as one of the first acts of Speaker; in another major concession, McCarthy agreed to the one-member threshold vote. Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde praised this motion.

“By restoring this historic rule, every solitary member has the authority to hold the Speaker accountable for following all of the rules,” Clyde said in a Twitter video.

While many Republicans see this rule as a victory, the one-member vote makes McCarthy’s job more unstable at the beginning of the new term. Dr. John Sherman, History professor at Wright State, discussed the challenges new leader McCarthy faces.

“He didn’t have that much grass roots support or networking, so that may have undercut some of his abilities to communicate with the new, more ideological people,” Sherman said.

Getting to work

In one of the first acts of the new Congress, Speaker McCarthy and the Republican majority established a new House subcommittee designed to probe the “weaponization” of the federal government.

Sherman said that changing this new measure could destabilize the government and potentially make it more dysfunctional.

“Their ambition seems to be to cut spending and to undermine Biden’s presidency in 2024, so there may be a little bit of a political edge to this,” Sherman said.

Time will tell whether McCarthy’s new position as Speaker of the House is successful. What is certain is the Speaker enters the new position in a divided Congress. Wilson discussed this issue.

“You have two things going on: the margins in the House are thin, making dissent easier, and you have a Republican Party that inside itself has allowed its boisterous element to become more powerful. So, when Democrats have thin margins, they are more likely to still walk in line,” Wilson said.

Wilson encouraged students at Wright State to pay attention to how the new Congress handles the student debt issue moving forward, also talking about different ways students can get involved in politics.

“They can join a political party or advocacy group, jump into social media circles, write blogs, start student organizations, make financial donations, hold civil demonstrations and help register their fellow citizens to vote,” Wilson said.  “There are so many ways to get involved that, to me, it seems like being in the sea. Professors like myself prefer to see more land. We would like quieter politics.”