Mike Johnson became speaker of the House last week practically by default. A relatively unknown backbencher, the Louisiana Republican snatched the gavel not because of his deep pockets (he has raised a paltry sum from GOP donors in his six years in Congress) or his political savvy (the jury is still out here). Rather, he won out because he’s made few, if any, enemies in his own caucus. The fact that Johnson represents a combination of the GOP’s most repulsive qualities—Donald Trump’s disdain for democracy, Paul Ryan’s economic program, Mike Pence’s religiosity—was also an asset: Everyone in the caucus could find something to love in the mild-mannered Louisianan. That included the fact that Johnson offered a chance to end all the intraparty bickering and clownery that the other prospective speakers—who had too many enemies to win—could not provide.
Now that he’s a week into the job, Johnson faces his first big test. Here’s where the good vibes have hit a skid: He is demonstrating that he may not be cut from leadership timber after all, which poses a long-term problem in that the caucus he presides over is as chaotic and incapable of governing as ever.
On October 19—six days before Johnson was elected speaker—Joe Biden asked Congress to approve a $105 billion aid package for Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel. Given the sizable opposition to Ukraine funding among the GOP’s MAGA wing, that bill was always going to be a tough sell. Speaking to Sean Hannity last week, Johnson laid out a path forward, telling the Fox host that he planned on “bifurcating those issues.”
“We’re not going to abandon [Ukraine], but we have a responsibility, a stewardship responsibility over the precious treasure of the American people, and we have to make sure that the White House is providing the people with some accountability for the dollars,” Johnson said.
This all put Johnson in an immediate bind. Funding for Israel is deeply popular within his caucus. Funding for Ukraine is not. And Johnson has a deeply unserious plan for resolving this problem.
Some of it will come as no surprise. As he hinted to Hannity, he separated the funding for Israel from the money earmarked for Ukraine and Taiwan and announced he would move forward with a stripped-down, $14.3 billion bill. Despite his pledge not to “abandon Ukraine,” there was no word on what he planned to do about aid for that country’s war against Russia—or, for that matter, Taiwan. But Johnson also had another card up his sleeve. In addition to advancing an aid package to Israel alone, he coupled that to a demand that that aid be offset by cuts to the IRS—specifically cuts to the money given to the agency in the Inflation Reduction Act that was specifically provided so that it could become more efficient and more effective at tracking down rich tax cheats.
It was a trollish, stupid ploy. It was also not a pay-for, given that the $14.3 billion in IRS funding is designed to raise revenue by recovering unpaid taxes from wealthy scofflaws. On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office confirmed these fundamental truths. Its analysis found that Johnson’s idea would add more than $26 billion to the deficit. Pressed with this information, Johnson played dumb. “Only in Washington when you cut spending do they call it an increase in the deficit,” he told reporters. Only in Washington would you hear something so cynical.
You’ll never believe what happened next. Per The Washington Post:
Johnson’s gambit was swiftly rejected by lawmakers in both parties. Top Senate Republicans such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Susan Collins called for including Ukraine aid in the legislative package, while the White House and congressional Democrats said cutting the IRS was a non-starter. The administration also panned Johnson for leaving out Biden’s proposals for humanitarian assistance, increasing immigration enforcement and funds to counter China. In remarks on Tuesday, McConnell also suggested the legislation should include funds for the U.S.-Mexico border.
Despite knowing that this plan would be dead on arrival in the Senate, Johnson moved forward with it anyway. Perhaps the best thing you could say about his maiden voyage into House leadership is that Johnson’s plan was at least a classic—and crass—bit of politicking. That, at least, was hinted at by Johnson ally Representative Scott Perry on Tuesday.
Naturally, the problem with this maneuver is that there’s no real good reason to sail this effort onto the shoals. Johnson could just as easily pass a $14.3 billion aid package to Israel and see what the Senate does. (He could also try to do what speakers traditionally do and twist arms for the larger package, but he has been a vocal opponent of continued military aid to Ukraine—his weird hint that it might be something he would support notwithstanding.) Instead of doing something that might be either good policy or good politics, he’s doing neither, opting instead for a doomed, symbolic gesture aimed at keeping the wild nihilists in his own caucus happy. This is probably a good move if you want to avoid sparking another speaker fight, but the trade-off is that this all dies in the Senate, leaving Johnson with no good “plan B” besides just doing what he might have done in the first place.
This is all a good sign that Johnson is more constrained by the chaotic internal politics of the House GOP than even Kevin McCarthy was. Johnson may share a lack of interest in governing or passing legislation with the wilder members of his caucus. Unfortunately, it’s hard to simultaneously maintain that posture and be the speaker of the House. What is abundantly clear is that little has changed in the gavel’s turnover: Johnson knows to keep his job he will have to continuously kowtow to the Republicans who want to simply obstruct legislation and throw sand in the gears of governing. It’s a bad outlook for passing Biden’s foreign aid bill. It’s an even worse sign for the looming government shutdown—to say nothing of everything that might come after these matters are determined. And Johnson may already be out of ideas.