One hundred days ago, following weeks of brutal GOP infighting, the House elected Mike Johnson of Louisiana to be speaker. This is the perfect time to assess Johnson’s performance — and the general political dynamics of the House right now — in the post-Kevin McCarthy era.
Johnson, 52, held a minor leadership role, vice chair of the Republican Conference, when he was picked to be speaker. Johnson went from scheduling one-minute floor speeches to running the House of Representatives. So Johnson’s allies believe he should be given some leeway when evaluating his performance. The speaker’s job doesn’t come with training wheels, as we’ve seen.
There have been a lot of fits and starts over the last 100 days — and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the broader House Republican Conference. Johnson was all over the map on FISA. He pushed through a clean CR after saying he’d never do that. Johnson’s budget deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was widely panned by hardline conservatives. The Louisiana Republican caught flak for tying Israel aid to IRS spending cuts. And Johnson only endorsed this week’s $80 billion tax bill just before it headed to the floor for a vote.
There are also lots of potential tripwires that Johnson faces over the next 30 to 50 days:
→ The special election in New York’s Third District is Feb. 13 to replace the expelled Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.). A Democratic pickup here would be embarrassing for Johnson and Republicans. Both sides are pouring millions of dollars into the race.
→ Twin government shutdown threats loom March 1 and March 8. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union is scheduled for March 7. Johnson is unlikely to notch any significant policy wins in the government funding bills and a shutdown still seems possible.
→ The FAA needs to be renewed by March 8 amid a series of aviation missteps over the past few weeks.
→ The House GOP conference still has deep schisms over FISA, which will make the April 19 renewal especially difficult.
→ The border and national security supplemental. If the Senate passes the supplemental, Johnson will have to balance the demands of his defense hawks, who will want to fund Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, against the majority of the conference, which opposes further aid to Ukraine. He’ll also have to deal with former President Donald Trump inevitably taking swipes at the bill.
If the Senate whiffs on a supplemental, there will be pressure on Johnson — and Senate leadership — to find a way to fund Israel and Ukraine. Israel will be easier for Johnson but may require him to swallow his pride and give up on the offsets.
Then there are little things that Johnson has to take care of in the near future. He has yet to fill a slot on the Intelligence Committee that’s been open since September, for example.
Let’s give credit where it’s due: Johnson has been a far better fundraiser than many expected. He’s kept pace for the Congressional Leadership Fund and the NRCC, which will heavily rely on him in the coming months.
Now we’ll talk about style. Johnson is the subject of constant chatter in the House. Democrats and Republicans both wonder how long he’ll last atop the chamber. None of this chatter really matters, but it’s out there.
But here are two more observations about how Johnson operates.
1) Johson is the least accessible speaker to the media in recent memory. He doesn’t talk in the hallways. He rarely holds solo media availabilities, preferring to appear with his leadership colleagues. Johnson’s aides explain that he wants to get the lower-level leadership soldiers in the press. But few quote anyone but Johnson.
2) Johnson stood with the New York Republicans on the SALT deduction cap issue. With a 40-3 Ways and Means vote in his pocket and every right to bring the bill to the floor, Johnson listened to the Empire State lawmakers and promised them a vote on a standalone SALT fix, working hardline conservatives to stand with their politically vulnerable colleagues. The New Yorkers are likely to lose here, but supporting vulnerable Republicans even when they face certain defeat is an important move for a speaker.
In many ways, Johnson has struggled with a broken institution. The House Rules Committee is inoperable because McCarthy stacked it with hardline conservatives to win the speakership back in January 2023. Johnson could fix that — but he hasn’t. Johnson has a historically slim majority, as well.
Johnson has told colleagues that part of his mandate is to bring down the temperature of the House. Has he done that yet? Probably not. Will he? With what he has stacked up in the next few weeks, we doubt it.
One other thing — Johnson won’t be able to hold on to the top GOP leadership post if Republicans lose the House. He can only stay on as speaker. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, Majority Whip Tom Emmer and Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — all of whom tried and failed to become speaker — see themselves as minority leader in the next Congress if things go badly for Republicans in November.
— Jake Sherman