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Mike Johnson Keeps Losing Embarrassing Votes. The Reason? This Guy.

Tom Emmer might be the least effective majority whip in congressional history.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer listens to House Speaker Mike Johnson
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
House Majority Whip Tom Emmer listens to House Speaker Mike Johnson during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on February 14.

Minnesota Representative Tom Emmer is the House majority whip. His job is to provide the House speaker with an accurate vote count on legislation before it’s put on the floor. An inaccurate vote count causes votes to fail on the House floor, which can be catastrophic to a speaker’s credibility. By this basic measure of competence, Emmer might be the worst whip Capitol Hill has ever seen—certainly the least effective in the modern history of the House of Representatives.

As Politico’s Katherine Tully McManus reported in February, a record six rule votes have failed during the 118th Congress. For you sports fans, losing a rule vote on the House floor when you’re in the majority is like shattering your ankle while lacing up your cleats before the season.

Rule votes are those pesky parliamentary votes that have to happen before the final passage of legislation. They are votes taken to set the parameters for how the legislation will proceed on the House floor in terms of debates and amendments. The majority party—in this Congress, Republicans—have historically voted for rules to proceed, even if they voted against the eventual final passage of a bill.

Not so in the 118th, where Republicans have repeatedly voted to torpedo legislation before debate can even begin. To understand just how unusual failed rule votes are, look to history. Before Republicans gained control of the majority in the 2022 midterms, a rule vote hadn’t failed for two decades—since 2002 under House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican now in prison for child sex crimes.

Last September, a rule vote to proceed with a Pentagon funding bill failed under House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. A month later, McCarthy was ousted by his own party’s far-right flank, eight of whom voted with every Democrat, prompting a bitter, three-week House GOP civil war over McCarthy’s replacement.

Emmer remained on as whip when Mike Johnson was finally elected House Speaker on October 25. But the whipping operation that had repeatedly humiliated McCarthy has not since improved. “He’s got the toughest job in Washington,” said Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, who, like several House GOP members, told The New Republic that Emmer is doing the best he can as whip, given Speaker Johnson’s one-vote majority in the House, the narrowest since the Great Depression.

But it’s not just on rule votes where Emmer has failed to deliver reliable whip counts to the Speaker. The most recent “Emmer Fudd”—a term that some House Republicans have come to use to describe embarrassing votes that fail on the House floor—was the vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on February 7.

After Johnson used his morning press conference to hype, along with Emmer and other House GOP leaders, the baseless impeachment resolution, not enough Republicans showed up to the vote to overcome unanimous Democratic opposition to the measure. The vote failed. Johnson was humiliated. Speculation began anew over whether Johnson would be vacated like McCarthy before him.

“Emmer helped elect some of these people but didn’t have any sway with them,” said Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, of Emmer’s leadership of the National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC, from 2019 to 2023.

The NRCC is responsible for electing House Republicans. Before the 2022 midterm, Emmer predicted as many as 70 Democrats could lose their seats. They lost 10. “I’ve been telling Democrats, especially Democrats in targeted seats, enjoy the holidays, and you got a decision to make: retire or lose next fall,” Emmer said in December 2021.

Instead, the midterm was a disaster for House Republicans, who barely won the majority, setting into motion a humiliating 15-ballot vote that eventually elected McCarthy as the first of two House speakers so far during this Congress.

For their part, Democrats have yet to break ranks during the current Congress, a testament to the effectiveness of the whipping operation under Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. “We have a female whip, so we’ve got girl math on our side,” said Representative Jasmine Crockett, a Texas Democrat from Dallas, when asked why Democrats are generally more effective at whipping votes than Republicans.*

Crockett, who served in the Texas state House before being elected to Congress in 2022, said trust is key to an effective whip operation. “It’s not just about the whip getting the count,” said Crockett. “It’s about the people that the whip is whipping, actually trusting the whip by being honest with them. Our whip is Katherine Clark on the Democratic side. We tell her where we stand because she needs that information. And honestly, no legislative body works without that type of trust.”

Representative Maxwell Frost, a first-term Florida Democrat, echoed Crockett’s regard for Clark’s whipping. “I’ve not once since I’ve been here felt strong-armed or anything like that,” he said. “I think that the Democratic leadership style allows members to be who they want to be while at the same time articulating the stakes very clearly.”

For her part, Clark didn’t waffle when asked about what Republicans could learn from her whip operation. “The great advantage I have over the majority whip is that our caucus is united around shared values, and that gives me a far greater ability to count and know where our caucus is,” Clark said.

Clark attributes her success in part to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, Clark said, taught Democrats how to count. Pelosi famously never put legislation that didn’t have the votes to pass on the House floor.

Emmer’s office did not reply to a request for an interview for this story.

* This article previously misstated the district that Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett represents.