Mike Johnson | The man with the gavel 

The long shadow of Donald Trump over the lower House of Congress seems to have helped the election of the Louisiana Congressman as the new Speaker 

Updated - October 29, 2023 12:48 pm IST

Published - October 29, 2023 01:40 am IST

Illustration for The Hindu

Illustration for The Hindu | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives finally succeeded in electing a Speaker, after more than three weeks of a leadership crisis in the chamber, the deleterious outcome of which was the stalling of important bills relating to federal government finances and congressional funding and support for Israel and Ukraine. In the aftermath of the ouster of Kevin McCarthy from the top role in the chamber on October 3, the candidate who emerged victorious after multiple rounds of closed-door confabulations and voting is Mike Johnson, Representative of Louisiana.

To win the coveted post, which makes him second in line for the U.S. presidency, Mr. Johnson had to persuade lawmakers that his relative lack of experience at the highest echelons of the House governance apparatus would not stand in the way of his proficiently wielding the Speaker’s gavel. Other than the Republican Study Committee, Mr. Johnson has neither occupied the top role in any high-profile House committee, nor held any other post, functional or ceremonial, that would have automatically led to name recognition as a political heavyweight in the tortuous contest to be the Speaker.

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How, then, did Mr. Johnson reach this exalted point in his political career? Quite simply, it appears that the same political force that rendered the search for Speaker an embattled process equally propelled a candidate such as Mr. Johnson to the top: the long shadow of the 45th President of the U.S., Donald Trump, over the Lower House of Congress.

Looking back at the ouster of Mr. McCarthy and the failure of Tom Emmer of Minnesota, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana to secure the gavel by cornering the minimum of 217 votes, despite being nominated to the role, it was the degree to which each of them enjoyed the support of the pro-Trumpers in the House that ultimately made the difference.

This begs the question of how far Mr. Johnson has gone to support the controversial views of Mr. Trump on a range of hot-button issues, and how he emerged as a compromise candidate to satisfy the demands of both the Trump-supporting camp and their opponents within the House Republican caucus.

Originally elected to Congress in 2016, Mr. Johnson represented an avowedly conservative corner of northern and western Louisiana. His tenure on Capitol Hill saw him rise gradually through the ranks of House Republican system, when he joined the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees and the recently-established select committee on ‘Weaponisation of the Federal Government’.

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Hard right conservative

An examination of his voting record during this time, along with statements that he has made on the record, suggest that the relatively mild-mannered Representative was in reality a hard right conservative on social issues. For example, he has said that he does not believe that humanity has caused the climate crisis, that he is against abortion, and is unapologetic in his opposition to LGBTQ+ rights. On foreign policy, he has voted against continuing U.S. aid to Ukraine.

However, Mr. Johnson’s political leanings were most lucidly on display in recent years when he took a lead in the legal challenges contesting the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, essentially arguing that ballot voting — necessitated by COVID-19-related lockdowns and movement restrictions — was a fraud by Democrats that allegedly denied Mr. Trump a fair run at winning the presidency. In that context Mr. Johnson was again on the record urging Mr. Trump to “keep fighting” and “exhaust every available legal remedy”.

Now that Mr. Johnson has gained the Speaker’s gavel, he has the power to introduce an ever-wider range of bills that favour the political agenda of Mr. Trump, who at this time looks likely to be the Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential election.

By setting the scene legislatively for Mr. Trump and thus paving the way for the latter’s second presidential campaign, Mr. Johnson will now put Democrats’ backs against the wall and force their hand in opposition to every contentious bill in the House.

The inevitable collapse of bipartisanship in the Lower Chamber that this outcome presages could well impact the very quality of governance by the federal government, not to mention deepen the bitter polarisation of the electorate on issues such as reproductive rights, immigration, the role of the government in steering the economy, and racism.

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