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Thursday, October 26, 2023

Why I’m Pessimistic about the Selection of the Speaker of the House

Why the political process favors cronies.

Image Credit: Public Domain via Pxhere

Update: After this story was written, Mike Johnson was selected as the Speaker of the House. My hope is he will be a departure from the politics-as-usual approach of McCarthy. However, in the article below I offer some reasons for skepticism. My skepticism is unrelated to Johnson in particular as he was put forward after the article was already started.

Republicans recently named Representative Mike Johnson as their 4th potential nominee for Speaker of the House. The search for a speaker has been something of an embarrassment for the party establishment, as the turnover of potential candidates continues to highlight that the GOP is no longer unified under the same old management.

I have no love lost for McCarthy. By all accounts he was simply a good old boy who worked the system for decades to get his chance at the top of the pyramid.

Unfortunately, I don’t have high hopes for whoever ends up being his replacement. The same forces that guided McCarthy to the top will likely push a similar-quality candidate to the top of the pile this time around. To understand why, we need to think about the economics of politics.

Looking Past the Romantic View

The research program spearheaded by Nobel-prize-winning economist James Buchanan can be explained many ways, but three words capture many of its most important insights: politics without romance.

The idea of thinking about politics without romance means considering the real incentives facing politicians rather than an idealized vision of the politician as some sort of benevolent super hero. If the romantic view of politics were true, I’d have a lot of reasons to be hopeful about the new speaker.

Perhaps some idealist looking to renew American politics would be chosen. He or she could root out corruption and turn the legislature back into the people’s house, rather than a den of thieves.

Alas, the system will not allow it without a fight. Our political system selects for survival. How do politicians survive in office year after year? Well, those politicians who are able to command the most votes and money will likely win elections.

Survival by getting a lot of votes may sound good. After all, that’s what democracy is all about, right? Maybe, but this can have some perverse outcomes. One way for politicians to gain popular support from the population they represent is to offer a lot of government handouts. For example, finance sector-based economies like New York or tech sector-based economies like California may benefit from subsidies to these industries.

What happens when a representative to these voters is able to pass a bill in Congress to subsidize their own state’s industries at the expense of taxpayers in all other states? I would expect they’d become very popular with their constituents.

Survival by money is obviously a fraught issue in politics and most people recognize that. If a politician can improve his or her chances of getting elected by receiving donations from big corporations, it’s reasonable to think the candidates who win will be those who funnel the most tax-dollars to said corporations.

Taken together, these sorts of actions characterize “politics as exchange.” Without clear feedback from market mechanisms like profit and loss which cut out wasteful activity, it’s no surprise that our political environment is dominated by these deleterious exchanges.

Buying the Speaker

What does this have to do with the Speaker vote? Well, it’s clear there is significant disagreement over who the next Speaker will be. Since Republicans have a relatively slim majority, it will take nearly unanimous agreement among the representatives to pick a new speaker.

Ideologically (or perhaps just strategically) there seem to be two wings of the political party with oppositional identities. If the two sides can’t reach a common ground with respect to ideas, who will rise? My suspicion is the candidate that rises to the top will be the one who offers the most “payments” to the holdouts.

If one side of the party is fiercely opposed to you, one thing you can do is offer them payments to offset how much they dislike you. For example, the new speaker-to-be could offer to make agricultural subsidies a high priority item in legislative sessions. This sort of “payment” could be used to convince opposition Republicans from the midwest to sign on.

This process is already well understood with respect to legislation. So-called “pork” is added to bills all the time to convince reluctant representatives to support bills they otherwise wouldn’t. A similar process can happen in leadership.

In fact, part of McCarthy’s downfall was apparently due to an inability to keep his bargains with Matt Gaetz.

Representative Jim Jordan attempted to pay off opposition when he offered to support doubling the SALT exemption which subsidizes high-tax blue states.

Unfortunately for Jordan, his offer wasn’t enough to convince his opposition. And unfortunately for taxpayers, this likely means whoever does become speaker is going to have to offer something even bigger.

This is ultimately the root of my pessimism when it comes to the new speaker—and of my cynicism toward Washington in general. I didn’t love McCarthy, but the same logic which caused his rise operates in our political climate today. Even if the ultimately chosen candidate looks good on paper (as of writing, Mike Johnson is currently leading the conversation), I doubt the process will let that record last. There’s no reason to expect different results from the same system.


  • Peter Jacobsen is a Writing Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.