How Speaker Johnson got it done

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To almost everyone’s astonishment, Speaker Mike Johnson has passed his first test with flying colors. The House adopted a bipartisan continuing resolution 331-95, keeping the government running for at least the next nine weeks.

Politics, like most human ventures, thrives on trust. Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy had lost it on both sides of the aisle by breaking his word multiple times, standing for nothing but his own Speakership. Trust in Johnson may not last, but it will keep the government going — for now.

His “laddered” approach to bypassing a government shutdown moved the Democrats’ way — a continuing resolution without cuts in spending, but in two steps. Some government programs would get funded through January 19, and other agencies’ appropriations would extend through February 2.

Johnson had four heavy lifts to keep the government open.

First, Johnson had to hold his Speakership while he depended on Democrats’ votes to pass the continuing resolution. McCarthy also relied on Democratic votes in passing his continuing resolution at the end of September, and it triggered Rep. Matt Gaetz’s “motion to vacate the chair,” costing McCarthy the gavel.

But Gaetz, according to McCarthy, had personal beefs with the former speaker. Such issues apparently don’t exist with Gaetz’s ally, Johnson, at least not yet.

Second, not knowing how many Democratic votes he would get, Johnson had to hold the majority of the GOP conference together behind the plan, no easy task. Most Republicans were looking for 30 percent cuts in discretionary government spending and are disinclined to put them off.

And there is surely a hard-feelings hangover among rival Republican camps from last month’s 21 days of infighting, when the Speakership fortunes of Rep. Steve Scalise, Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Tom Emmer sequentially rose and dropped off the cliff.

As GOP Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas said last week about his own conference, “I don’t think the Lord Jesus himself could manage this group.”

True to form, the House Freedom Caucus was reportedly “furious” with Johnson. But apparently not so furious to yank in his leash, even as 93 Republicans voted against Johnson’s bill.

It may have helped that Republicans knew that before the threatened shutdown in October, polling showed that Americans would blame them two-to-one if the government shuttered.

Third, what about the elephant in the cloakroom, Donald Trump? Remember that a shutdown was precisely what Trump seemed to want in September. While the previous threat of closure was pending, Trump told his MAGA House acolytes to embrace it unless they got “everything” they want.

He knew, of course, that in serious negotiations no one ever gets everything they want.

Not only is government chaos Trump’s brand, but a shutdown might have hurt Biden. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the month-long partial government shutdown in 2018-19 reduced the nation’s gross national product by $11 billion. Trump surely figured that anything that depressed Joe Biden’s economic numbers would be good for his own presidential future. Yet somehow Johnson seems to have managed Trump, too.

Last, Johnson had to get enough Democratic votes. This was the easiest lift. Even though some Democrats had initially expressed opposition to the two-tiered approach, all but two ended up supporting it.

Ultimately, yielding to Democrats’ goal of avoiding spending cuts was the secret sauce of Johnson’s success. Plus, let’s be frank: Democrats knew they would’ve at least shared the blame for a shutdown if the vote failed. 

If the Senate goes along with the laddered CR plan, what happens in January? Johnson has said he’s done with continuing resolutions. So, on January 19, he may find himself between the rock of his conference’s commitment to anti-Biden budget cuts and the hard place of keeping the government open.

This much we can say. His politics have been extremist, and his theocratic political vision offends all notions of separating Church and State. But, as far as we know, during his short stint with the gavel, he hasn’t betrayed anyone yet. In politics, as in most of life, reliability, competence and intention are the elements of trust, and trust is the coin of the realm in getting things done together.

And then there’s this: At a time when Trumpism is shaking the foundations of so many of our governmental institutions, it reassures the soul to see one of our most vital government bodies performing in some approximation of how it should. Doing the right thing for the people is what government should be all about.

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor and civil litigator, currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

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