House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., center, walks from the House floor on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in Washington. Credit: Alex Brandon / AP

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Ever heard of Henny-Penny? She’s back!

The children’s tale character was hit on the head by an acorn, concluded “the sky is falling” and set out to warn the king. Along the way she panicked her friends, who followed her, only to be tricked and killed by Foxy-Woxy. Just in time, Henny-Penny heard Coxy-Loxy crow, stopped to lay her morning egg and promptly forgot the sky issue.

After House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made concessions to his hard-right GOP members last week, you might have thought the sky was falling. “To save himself, McCarthy just destroyed the House,” a Washington Post columnist cried.

I’ll play Coxy-Loxy. The sky is not falling. The House was not destroyed.

To be sure, McCarthy met demands of the right-wing so they would step aside and let him squeak into the speakership. By conceding, he made at least three things happen.

First, he agreed to help them win some legislative battles. The most significant is giving in to their demand to block an increase in the debt limit by paring down existing spending. After Congress authorizes spending and appropriates the funds, the Treasury must be allowed to borrow what’s needed, along with taxes, to cover the appropriations.

McCarthy is allowing other jabs at Democratic policies, like reviving the IRS, though they will end up as posturing not policy. And he has added an investigating committee to harass and embarrass the Biden administration.

The Republican House will face a Democratic president and Senate that would hardly go along.  An impasse on the debt limit could lead to a shutdown of the federal government or at least severe cutbacks. It is impossible now to know the outcome, and it’s not helpful to assume the worst on the strength of McCarthy’s deal. It may have been an acorn.

Second, McCarthy agreed to some procedural changes that weaken the Speaker’s power. The House Rules, giving the Speaker full operational control of the House, produce what is called “regular order.”  Changing “regular order” matters, but it’s not the end of the House.

Under the new system, a single member will be able to propose a motion to remove the Speaker.  In debates on spending bills, members will be able freely to offer amendments. Appropriations for individual departments will be handled independently, not rolled into a single “omnibus” package. All of these procedures have existed at some time in the recent past.

The problem with democracy is that it is intentionally inefficient. Giving all the power to the Speaker fixes that, but at the cost of the independent power of each representative.

Omnibus bills result from adding enough pet projects of representatives and senators to a spending package until majority support is obtained. That’s called “logrolling” and the logs roll over those left out of the deal. The right-wingers believe that smaller bills give them a bigger chance.

Pundits worry that the right will abuse the process and either block any action or force others to accept their extreme positions on pending bills. While they may be able to prevent bills from being enacted, they cannot control Congress. Stalemate might encourage President Joe Biden to take as much unilateral action as he can, just what they don’t want.

The third change is historic. In 1994, GOP Rep. Newt Gingrich, who would become Speaker, led House Republicans to adopt strict party discipline. He promised that if they pledged total party loyalty, their power would grow. It worked. It was the same kind of party control as exists in the British Parliament but is not usual in the American Congress.  

The GOP right-wing grew increasingly restive in bending to the will of the party leadership and with the McCarthy election balloting, strict party discipline ended. While the anointed leader was elected Speaker, he gave away enough control to ensure that no single person could control the House GOP.

The concern raised by these changes is that the GOP extreme right wing, only a minority of all Republicans, will be able to set the House agenda by threatening the Speaker. Even worse, they could wreak havoc, causing what would amount to a new version of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

If the Speaker’s election turned procedures back to an earlier time with greater power for individual members making chaos possible, the solution might be readily available to most other House Republicans. They could shake off their dependence on Donald Trump and oppose the right wing’s ambitions.

They need not drop the party’s traditional conservatism, but take on the challenge of defining it for themselves. Instead of making concessions to Trump for fear of facing primary challengers he favors, they have the chance to exercise leadership and renew their party. We’ll see.

The American parliament just died. Up next: the 2024 elections.  

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.