What Just Happened?
The Honorable Mike Johnson (R-LA) has been elected to serve as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, following the sudden removal of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). As Speaker, Johnson is now second in line to the Presidency after Vice President Kamala Harris and will wield considerable influence over the House agenda.
Over the course of 22 days, Republicans deliberated over who would lead the House, originating more plot twist than the popular Netflix series House of Cards. Republicans rejected four nominees for Speaker, unable to come together to support House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), Chairman of House Judiciary Jim Jordan (R-OH), Speaker pro tempore Patrick McHenry (R-NC), and finally House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN). While many speculated that Jim Jordan could secure the position after a vote on the House floor, this gambit ultimately proved unsuccessful, as House moderates came together to deny his bid.
After rejecting notable Republican leaders, Members cast a series of secret ballots, dropping the candidate who garnered the fewest number of votes in each round. Eventually, Rep. Mike Johnson emerged as the nominee.
Who Is Mike Johnson?
Mike Johnson, a relatively new Member of Congress in his 4th term, representing Louisiana’s 4th Congressional District. Before being elevated to Speaker, Johnson served as the Vice Chairman of the Republican Conference and as a Deputy Whip. He was also the former Chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and served as the Chairman for the Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution and Limited Government. He was also a Member on the House Armed Services Committee. He is new to the national spotlight, and by his own admission, he had no aspiration to the position of Speaker until prodded by House colleagues.
Speaker Johnson is known by his colleagues as a “nice guy.” He is a family man, father of four, son of a firefighter, and husband to Kelly Johnson. Professionally, Johnson earned his bachelors and Juris Doctorate from Louisiana State University. His legal practice focused on advocacy for religious freedom, before starting his political career. He was first elected to serve in the Louisiana House of Representatives in 2015, before winning election in the U.S. House of Representatives two years later. Johnson is known as an advocate for both a budget overhaul and the promotion of conservative social values on issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Has This Ever Happened Before?
Yes—sort of. In 1999, J. Dennis Hastert, was elevated to Speaker of the House of Representatives after having served only 12 years in Congress. Hastert was known as the “Accidental Speaker,” rising to the occasion after Bob Livingston bowed out, and Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom Delay demurred. Hastert later was the longest serving Republican Speaker, and the “Hastert Rule” lives on after his service, which only allows a floor vote on a bill if a majority within the majority party supports it.
What Are Speaker Johnson’s Key Challenges?
Speaker Johnson faces several immediate challenges as he simultaneously expands his staff from tight-nit loyalists focused on representing his Louisiana district, to a massive staff necessary to run the Office of the Speaker, which includes legislative, policy, ceremonial, and governance responsibilities. As Johnson has little leadership experience, he will need to recruit a savvy and experienced team to assist with the broad responsibilities of the job.
Simultaneously, he will need to turn his attention to funding the U.S. government, as the continuing resolution passed under Speaker McCarthy is set to expire on November 17, 2023. Johnson will likely need to use the same tactic as the former Speaker and seek a continuing resolution on government funding to buy himself some time to settle in. Additionally, Congress will immediately face decisions on funding for Israel and Ukraine.
The wildcard that took down Speaker McCarthy also remains alive, and Johnson will still have to navigate the "one-member" rule that ousted McCarthy, although he has stated he thinks that the House will change that rule.
What Are Speaker Johnson’s Key Advantages?
Johnson’s successful election comes after several weeks of infighting, and House Republicans finally appear ready to move on and to stop being the story. Moreover, Johnson enjoys close relationships and support of House conservatives and does not have the deep bench of opponents that other leaders had collected. Summing up the current posture of the House, Rep. Thomas Massie (R., Ky.), said “It’ll be at least 30 days before we get stabby again.”
What To Expect During Johnson’s Speakership
Everyone is looking to see how Johnson will organize his staff and his agenda, particularly because in just under a year Americans will begin casting their ballots in a presidential election year. He is promising to decentralize power in the House, empowering Committee Chairs to chart their own course.
Although Johnson has pledged to submit a standalone bill providing $14.5 billion in aid to Israel, the amount requested by the White House, he is promoting a plan that would require the diversion of funds earmarked for the IRS, setting up a partisan fight over a bipartisan cause.
Regarding aid for Ukraine, Johnson believes consensus among House Republicans requires that he not join the issue with aid to Israel. Though he is also against allowing the Russians “to prevail in Ukraine because [he doesn’t] believe it would stop there.”
Following these immediate needs, Johnson’s focus will be on appropriations, especially given the stated intention to pass individual funding measures, as opposed to the omnibus measures that have been the solution for over two decades. Congress has passed all its required appropriations measures on time only four times: fiscal 1977, 1989, 1995 and 1997.
Partner Kristina M. Moore brings Congressional Investigation experience to Womble. As a former Congressional investigator herself, Kristina is keeping an eye on this historical moment and how it will impact House operations.
Chukwukpee Nzegwu is a business litigation associate who also works in Womble Bond Dickinson’s white-collar defense, investigations and regulatory enforcement group.