With Mike Johnson, a Republican representative from Louisiana, an ally of Donald Trump who backed his claims about the 2020 election being “stolen”, a staunch Far-Right figure who celebrated the US Supreme Court verdict overturning Roe V Wade, and an evangelical Christian, elected as the new Speaker of the US House of the Representatives, the American legislature has entered unchartered territory.
Johnson will now have to keep the Republicans united in the House and please his patron, Trump, while also addressing governance requirements which entails the House to pass relevant spending bills and collaborate with the Democratic administration or risk a a government shutdown. He will also have to navigate both issues of convergence between parties such as American support for Israel and divergences such as American support for Ukraine.
If Johnson sticks to his Far-Right inclinations, American polity is headed for a prolonged impasse and deepening of tensions between the legislature and the executive. If he displays an accommodative stance, which is unlikely, Johnson risks losing his already limited political capital and base at a time when even a single member of the House can seek to oust the Speaker. The fact that there is only a year to go for the presidential elections means that politically competitive instincts in the House are peaking on all sides of the aisle and the room for compromise is diminishing.
Johnson’s election on Wednesday — 220 members backed him while 209 opposed him in the House — came three weeks after Republican Far-Right members ousted Kevin McCarthy as Speaker for what they saw as too accommodative an approach towards the Democratic administration.
Since then, despite multiple rounds of voting, the Republicans had failed to elect a Speaker, either because moderates rejected far-Right candidates (such as Jim Jordan, the co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus) or because the Far-Right rejected more moderate candidates (such as Steven Scalise and Tom Emmer).
But the prolonged delay in electing a Speaker was denting Republican credibility and had led to a sense of fatigue among the members, besides giving Democrats an opportunity to showcase the GOP as a force in disarray and incapable of governing. The mood on Capitol Hill was one of frustration, with the Republicans eventually consolidating behind Johnson and giving the Far-Right a major triumph.
The man and his politics
Johnson, 51, is a generally low-key figure in the Republican Party, who is most prominent for his extreme positions on a range of political and cultural positions that have divided America.
He was among the key figures in the House backing Trump’s claims on the 2020 elections and led an effort to the block the certification of the results. He opposed investigating the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. He opposes same sex relationships and marriages and has pushed policies to restrict pedagogy around sexuality for children in federally funded institutions. He was the chairman of the arch-conservative Republican Study Committee.
Johnson and his wife are devout Christians. He has pushed many bills restricting abortion access nationally and welcomed the Roe v Wade verdict that ended national protection to abortion. And he is close to the oil and gas lobby, putting him firmly against climate action advocates.
Johnson has to now both deal with an administration request for $105 billion for national security funding especially for Ukraine and Israel, and deal with the prospects of a federal government shutdown from November 17 unless the House passes the relevant appropriations bills.
McCarthy had enabled the passage of a continuing resolution that allowed the government to stay open, but this is what triggered the rebellion from the far-Right of his own party. Trump, who is exercising his power and influence in shaping the House dynamics, is seen as pushing for a shutdown and believes this will be blamed on his arch rival, President Joe Biden. Trump called Johnson a “fantastic gentleman” who will do a “great job” on Wednesday.
Soon after his victory, Johnson said that sending aid to Israel, fixing the southern border, and reining in federal spending as his top priorities. In a statement on Wednesday, Biden congratulated Johnson and said he would work in good faith with the Speaker. “We need to move swiftly to address our national security needs and to avoid a shutdown in 22 days. Even though we have real disagreements about important issues, there should be mutual effort to find common ground wherever we can.”
Finding that common ground is going to be exceedingly hard, for if Donald Trump’s rise represented the elevation of American Far-Right in the executive branch, Mike Johnson’s rise represents the elevation of the uncompromising and extreme American Far-Right in the legislative branch. Biden, who is battling multiple external and internal crises, will have to deal with a new interlocutor and a new, more challenging situation than that existed when McCarthy was speaker. All signs point to continued dysfunctionality and disruption in the governance matrix of the US.