By the Numbers: The Race for Speaker of the House and its National Security Implications

October 17, 2015

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy simply didn’t see a path to the 218 votes he needed to become speaker of the House, so he backed out of the race. To be sure, his comments about the Benghazi committee didn’t help, but his bid for the speaker’s gavel could have survived the gaffe. His withdrawal has left the House Republican caucus in upheaval. But although the politics of national security — in this case the Benghazi committee’s investigation — did not actually trigger the upheaval, the eventual outcome could seriously impact the politics of national security much more broadly.

First, more about the numbers, which themselves are key to understanding the power dynamics that could affect everything from defense spending to future sanctions on Iran. 218 is now the most important number in American politics. The trouble for Republicans is that many candidates have been put forward, but there are no clear front-runners who are close to 218 other than Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan. But he does not want the job. Why not? Ryan is currently in his dream job as head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. A former Hill staffer who loves to read white papers, debate, and craft policy, Ryan is a consummate legislator, and his committee is where legislating happens.

More importantly, the speakership brings with it inevitable attacks — both from Democrats, for whom he’ll inevitably be too conservative or stubborn, and from the right wing of his own party, for whom he’ll be not nearly conservative or stubborn enough. The inevitability of such attacks is cause for concern for someone who harbors presidential ambitions, as Ryan surely does.

We all know that the Republican caucus is deeply fractured. The main fissure separates the Freedom Caucus — largely but not entirely consisting of newer members who see compromise on key issues as selling out the voters who have elected them (in many cases over less conservative Republicans in primary contests) — and congressional Republicans’ more moderate wing — who argue that ideological intransigence is essentially a dereliction of Congress’s duty to govern. Watch the video below from last weekend’s edition of Meet the Press to see key figures on either side of this debate go head to head.

So how does this divide and the race for speaker impact defense and foreign policy? First, Freedom Caucus members aren’t necessarily dramatically more conservative than the average Republican member. The rift is “about tactics more than ideology.” The Freedom Caucus believes the Republican-held House should take a firmer line in negotiations with President Obama. When congressional leadership meets with Obama to try to craft a budget deal and avert a government shutdown in December, that approach could significantly impact how those talks play out, including over tricky defense spending issues related to sequestration and the use of Overseas Contingency Operations funds to circumvent current spending caps.

Second, the Freedom Caucus sought to delay a vote on the Iran nuclear deal in September. The group’s most kindred spirit in the Senate is presidential candidate Ted Cruz, one of the deal’s most vociferous opponents. In the first GOP presidential debate, he promised, “If I am elected president, on the very first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.” In the House, where efforts to halt the bill failed, the hardline position going forward will likely favor unilateral re-imposition of sanctions. Such a position would also play into another favorite Freedom Caucus theme: that Congress should push back against the centralization of power within the executive branch. So just as one of the most frequent criticisms of the Iran deal itself is that it should have been negotiated as a treaty and required the advice and consent of the Senate, hardliners on Iran could pressure the future speaker to assert Congress’s constitutional role by re-imposing sanctions, more of which have historically been put in place against Iran by executive order than through legislation.

Finally, the Freedom Caucus is demanding the new speaker give up full control of the floor schedule. A more democratic system would allow Freedom Caucus members to send bills to the floor with fewer conditions. The group has an internal rule that it will take a formal position on an issue if 80 percent of its members agree. But because the group is small — with only 33 confirmed members, much smaller than its current influence would suggest — this means that, under a speaker the Freedom Caucus helps elect, a handful of legislators could introduce bills on any in a range of defense and foreign policy issues. This could dramatically alter the landscape on which all of these battles — from the defense budget to the Iran deal and many points between — are fought.

This brings us back to 218. Right now, Ryan represents the only potential candidate with any chance to get “establishment” Republicans and the Freedom Caucus to back him without acceding to all of the latter’s demands. If he agrees to run for the speakership, but the Freedom Caucus is able to squeeze key concessions from him, or if he declines and a weak consensus candidate emerges, politics on Capitol Hill will soon be run very differently than it has been for decades. Security and foreign policy will not be immune from the disruptive impacts.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore