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The fifteenth ballot, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, the fifth day:

  • McCarthy 216
  • Jeffries 212
  • Present 6
  • Total votes 428

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi used the title phrase to describe the rules changes that Kevin McCarthy had to agree to in order to finally get the speakership he has long sought. Even after those concessions, six of his opponents would not vote for him, but agreed to vote “present” to allow him to win the majority of votes cast for candidates.

The agonizing week was an astonishing display of the leverage that only ten percent of the Republican caucus could exert, forcing 200 of their colleagues to endure more than four days and fifteen ballots. The ninety percent held firm for McCarthy through it all, but the prize they finally won was of dubious value.

Twenty extreme-right Republicans could jerk around about 200 of their colleagues because, paradoxically, Republicans underperformed in November’s midterm elections. They emerged with only 222 seats in the House: a majority, but with only four seats to spare. To become Speaker, McCathy had to have those twenty votes.

While such a slender majority might be expected to lead to a cautious, centrist approach to policymaking, the hard right Freedom Caucus (or most of it: some Freedom Caucus members like Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene were with McCarthy from the start) grabbed the power to ensure that the Republican majority would pursue its hard-right agenda on such issues as the debt ceiling, which will need to be raised this year, and which the Freedom Caucus will resist.

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We should remember that virtually all House Republicans are quite conservative, even if the twenty anti-McCarthy rebels are even more conservative. About as many House Republicans represent districts won by Biden, so they have an incentive not to go down the right-wing rabbit hole.

Chief among the concessions McCarthy made was to allow any single member to move, at any time, to “vacate the chair,” which would, if adopted, oust the Speaker immediately. Thus even if he retained the support of 200 members, he would fall short of a majority if the twenty (or some number of them) decided to oppose him. He could then only stay in the speakership if he got Democratic votes.

McCarthy also agreed to give the Freedom Caucus one-third of the seats on the Rules Committee, which determines the rules under which each bill is to be considered on the floor. He agreed to liberalize rules governing amendments to appropriations bills, so that any member could propose amendments while such bills are under consideration.

These and other rules changes would empower individual members to a degree not seen in recent years. The House has evolved to empower the Speaker and the majority party leadership to control the agenda and facilitate passage of essential bills, such as appropriations. This meant that Pelosi, with a majority no bigger than McCarthy’s, could and did move major legislation with a united majority party.

McCarthy does not have a united majority party. He has agreed to disempower himself as Speaker, and empower the small but vital Freedom Caucus, which will function as a sort of opposition on his right flank. What nobody seems to have considered, though, is that these rules changes also empower the Democrats as the minority party, the official opposition. Either the twenty Freedom Caucus members or the 212 Democrats will have the ability to systematically gum up the works of the House, to make it impossible to get anything done. Under the Pelosi Era rules, nobody could do that.

The new rules will make the House more like the Senate, where there are many tools, like the filibuster, that empower the minority party, and individual members. But it is exponentially more difficult to get 435 members moving in the same direction, than to do that with 100 members.

The fifteen ballots it took to elect Kevin McCarthy are paralleled only by several elections in the 1850s, as the country hurtled toward civil war. The concessions he made to finally get elected mean that his victory was pyrrhic: it was defeat clothed as victory. He will go down as one of the weakest Speakers in the country’s history—and will have one of the shortest terms.