The Deal Hakeem Jeffries Should Offer Kevin McCarthy (or Any GOP Would-Be Speaker)

 by Michael C. Dorf

Thus far, Democrats have treated the Republicans' inability to elect a Speaker of the House as a spectacle to mock and (judging by my email inbox) a fundraising opportunity. Perhaps the time has come to get off the sidelines and offer a deal. 

What kind of deal? Democrats should agree to provide Kevin McCarthy (or another Republican) enough votes to secure the Speakership in exchange for abandonment of the Hastert Rule--under which no matter makes it to the House floor without support of a majority of the majority party. With the House arrayed as it is, the Hastert rule allows just over a quarter of the body--likely consisting of the most right-wing members--to block legislation that has support of the vast majority of the House. Eliminating the Hastert Rule would not undercut the Republicans' ability to stymie action if they are united, but it will make it much easier for must-pass legislation (like raising the debt ceiling) to pass.

Would such a deal be enforceable? Might McCarthy take the Speakership and then renege? That's possible, but it's also possible that McCarthy (who has no core convictions of any sort) might follow through because it would prevent the Trumpiest/FreedomCaucus-iest Republicans from hamstringing him in the same way they undid the Speakership of John Boehner.

One way to understand the bloc of hardline Republicans repeatedly voting against McCarthy is as the rough equivalent of a minor party in a parliamentary system. I say "rough" because, as Rick Pildes argues persuasively in The NY Times, the holdouts are more like free agents, and what unifies them is more a matter of stylistic difference from more mainstream Republican members, not any difference over policy. That's why it's so hard for McCarthy to make concessions to them for their votes.

But even so, if left to their own devices, the Republicans will eventually settle on a Speaker--whether McCarthy, Steve Scalise, or somebody else, only after empowering some of the worst elements of the party. (I say "some" because to this point, some of the worst elements of the party, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, have supported McCarthy.) This dynamic is familiar from genuine multi-party parliaments (including most recently Israel): a center-right party that wins a plurality turns to far-right parties to form a government. Parliamentary systems empower fringe parties when no party holds a majority.

To combat that dynamic in a genuine parliamentary system, a center-left party can offer to form a unity government with the center-right plurality party. Such arrangements are always somewhat fragile--often leading to early elections in systems in which that's a possibility. Were there enough Republicans willing to join with Democrats to form a unity government, that would be a way out, but I very much doubt that this is a possibility. Perhaps, however, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries can offer the unity government idea first, with the deal involving the Hastert Rule as a backup.

Even if McCarthy ultimately turns down an offer from Jeffries, if he were even to consider it for a while, that could give him some leverage with the GOP holdouts. Seeing the possibility of McCarthy being pulled to the center, they might more readily drop their opposition. In the short run, that would seem good for Republicans and thus bad for Democrats. But if one assumes--as I do--that eventually the Republicans will elect a Speaker even if they have to do so on their own, then it is better if they do so under circumstances when they are less desperate to appease the most committed obstructionists.