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Modest Proposals

House Republicans Only Have One Way out of Their Government Funding Debacle

If they want to keep the government open and benefit politically, they should make a Democrat speaker.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
Speaker of the House (for now) Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson should have seen this coming. In October, the then backbencher became speaker of the House after far-right radicals ousted Kevin McCarthy for the crime of negotiating with the Biden administration to keep the government open. Now Johnson is on the verge of being deposed himself—for the crime of negotiating with Senate Democrats to keep the government open.

More than a year into one of the least productive Congresses in American history, it is exceedingly clear that House Republicans both have no interest in governing and are themselves ungovernable. With the possible exception of Donald Trump, there is no one within the GOP who can keep its various factions in line. There is certainly no one within the current Republican House who has the political capital to strike a deal with Democrats to fulfill Congress’s most basic responsibility—keeping the government open—while retaining the necessary support from GOP members.

Given that this is an election year, shutting down the government and having another protracted period in which there is no speaker of the House (or both!) would be an exceptionally bad look for Republicans, who are—again, theoretically—making the case to voters this fall that they should be trusted to control both chambers of Congress and the White House. But there is a simple, elegant solution that would keep the government open and likely benefit Republicans in the long run: Hand control of the House over to Democrats.

Consider Johnson’s bind, which is the same one McCarthy faced. Republicans have an extraordinarily slim majority in the House; after George Santos’s December ouster and McCarthy’s retirement at the end of the year, it sits at just three votes. On January 21, that margin will shrink to just two when Ohio Republican Bill Johnson retires. Because some within the GOP won’t vote for any spending deal that doesn’t contain draconian cuts, and because Democrats control the Senate and the White House, any agreement to keep the government open requires a bipartisan compromise.

But compromise is anathema to many House Republicans. Rather than recognize reality—the absolute necessity of reaching across the aisle—they have embraced a fantasy: that their leader, not their slim majority, is the cause of their legislative incompetence. Johnson’s task is impossible: He has to keep the government open and keep his right flank happy. The problem is that he can’t do both. Thus, it seems increasingly inevitable that before too long either the government will shut down or Johnson will lose the gavel—or both. And whoever gets the gavel after Johnson will be in the same bind, probably with an even shorter leash.

So the Republicans should unburden themselves of this responsibility, which they clearly can’t uphold anyway, and just give up the gavel to Democrats and dare them to do better.

No, I don’t think the House GOP would ever do this, and yes, there are a few obvious caveats. Republicans have few—if any—legislative priorities, but they are dead set on using their slim majority to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter in an attempt to deflect attention from Trump’s numerous criminal and civil trials. A Democrat, particularly current party leader Hakeem Jeffries, taking the gavel would not only be seen as a profound failure but as practically treasonous by the right-wing press.

And yet, it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t be preferable for House Republicans’ political goals to simply relinquish control. The government shutting down would be eminently bad for their chances of maintaining their narrow House majority; it would also likely damage Trump’s presidential chances, given that it would serve as a glaring reminder of the recklessness and incompetence of the Republican Party.

Giving up control of the House would allow them to at least plead powerlessness. They could return to a defensive posture, accusing Biden and the Democrats of reckless spending, and wash their hands of any deal that funds the government through the 2024 election. As for the Hunter Biden investigation, there is an argument that holding off would benefit them politically as well. They could continue to prosecute the case in the media, as they have for the last four years, arguing that Democrats are covering up a massive corruption scandal—and promising once again to begin investigating the “Biden Crime Family” when they regain power.

Holding off on the Hunter Biden investigation is beneficial in an additional way: They don’t have the goods. Despite grandiose claims of President Biden raking in millions in bribes via his drug-addled son, they have produced no evidence. The investigation is a massive embarrassment, and continuing it will only reinforce how flimsy and politically motivated it is. It may even make voters sympathetic to the president. And when Trump’s criminal and civil trials begin to heat up, it may ultimately backfire, presenting a contrast between a Republican presidential nominee who is guilty of multiple crimes—fraud, sexual assault, insurrection, among others—and a Democratic presidential nominee who is the victim of a political witch hunt (a real one).

If Jeffries is unpalatable to the handful of Republicans needed to make him speaker—which is highly likely—a compromise could be found, with the New York Democrat remaining party leader but someone else becoming speaker. Democrats could offer a centrist choice from their own ranks (someone like Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger) or pull a moderate with bipartisan appeal from outside the chamber. There is, after all, no requirement that the speaker of the House be a member of the House. A NeverTrump Republican—think Liz Cheney or John Kasich—would be another option, though it’s hard to imagine such a politician being elected, given the likely defections from progressive Democrats and Republicans terrified of angering Trump and Fox News. Members of Congress could even get creative: Mark Cuban just sold the Dallas Mavericks and quit Shark Tank and presumably has a fair amount of time on his hands.

Yes, my tongue is firmly in cheek at this point. But for a year now, House Republicans have been caught in a repetitive, self-destructive cycle. There is a seeming belief that if they only select a different speaker they will magically get a different outcome: a funding deal that keeps the government open while shrinking its size dramatically. They should face the facts: This simply will not happen. There’s only one way out of their current predicament, which is to acknowledge, at long last, that they have no business running the House of Representatives. Doing so may be the only way for them to hold onto their majority.