Kevin McCarthy’s quest to become speaker of the House of Representatives is a master class in how not to negotiate. He became what New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls “speaker in name only” after fifteen ballots over five days. Election of a speaker normally is a routine event, and this was the first time a speaker was not elected on the first ballot in the last 100 years.
The botched negotiations not only weakened Mr. McCarthy but, paradoxically, they also may weaken the Republican rebels who repeatedly extracted concessions from him.
What did Mr. McCarthy do wrong in the negotiations? Lots of things.
The Washington Post published a lengthy account of the negotiations leading to his election.
One of his opponents derided his failure to acknowledge their interests and his lack of candor. “The arrogance of it, the inability to recognize your colleagues’ interest, the ongoing way that leadership tries to mansplain to rank-and-file members that they actually have done what they have not done and expecting them not to pick up on it – that’s the kind of thing that is infuriating.”
According to the article, Mr. McCarthy took several actions that alienated the rebels. For example, he rejected their “wish list” of committee assignments after he asked for it. Indeed, on the first day of balloting, he said he would not “relent” to the rebels’ “personal wish lists.” One of his supporters said that the rebels “should be kicked off their committee assignments” if they voted against Mr. McCarthy. Another supporter told reporters that the rebels were acting like “terrorists” and “children.”
During the summer and fall, when it was widely believed that the Republicans would have a large majority in the House due to a “red wave” in the midterm elections, Mr. McCarthy rebuffed the rebels’ requests to discuss the legislative rules they wanted. He began serious discussions with them only after the midterms, when it became clear he would need their votes to become speaker.
Tensions within the Republican caucus were so serious that they needed what they called “therapy sessions” to vent their emotions.
In his negotiations with the rebels, Mr. McCarthy bid against himself, which is a major no-no in negotiation. Negotiators generally refuse to make a concession except in response to a concession from the other side. Making concessions without getting anything in return is a sign of weakness, which invites further pressure to make more unreciprocated concessions.
Mr. McCarthy got virtually none of the “exchange surplus” from the negotiations. When people negotiate a deal, both sides generally should feel better off because they value what they receive more than what they give in exchange. For example, if a store sells something for $10, the store makes a profit and the buyer believes that the purchased object is worth more to her than $10. The combined value of the parties’ perceived gain is the “exchange surplus.” Normally, each side in the deal gets a substantial part of the exchange surplus or else they wouldn’t make the deal.
In Mr. McCarthy’s case, his opponents received virtually all of the benefit of the deal. Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the last holdouts, confirmed this, saying that they were running out of things to ask for.
Mr. McCarthy eventually was elected speaker, but he did not even get the votes of the last six rebels. Legislators generally trade their votes for legislative language satisfying their interests. In this case, the holdouts merely voted “present,” acquiescing but not supporting Mr. McCarthy’s election.
Omens for the Future
In politics, there are constant negotiations both “behind the table” and “across the table” when both sides have some power. Negotiations across the table – or aisle in Congress – are between Republicans and Democrats. Negotiations behind the table are within each party.
The process of electing Mr. McCarthy as speaker indicates that there probably will continue to be difficult negotiations behind the table on the Republican side. It left bitter feelings and distrust within the House. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has a very different approach from Mr. McCarthy, though he also faced a challenge to his leadership. The turmoil within the Republican ranks will make it hard for them to negotiate agreements.
The small Republican majority in the House enables a small number of Congress members to remove him as speaker, weakening his negotiation position. He “played his negotiation cards” poorly, further weakening him.
One of the biggest losses for Mr. McCarthy was (further) damage to his credibility. Unlike one-time negotiations, like settlements of insurance claims, legislators repeatedly negotiate with each other. They look at recent negotiations to decide how much they can rely on others’ commitments. For example, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi earned her reputation as someone whose “word was her bond.” Even her opponents knew that she virtually always would do what she said.
That’s not the case with Mr. McCarthy. In the fifteen-round vote-a-rama, he drew “lines in the sand” that he claimed he would not cross – only to publicly cross them soon afterward. He was easily pushed around, so no one can rely on his word. The extremists in his caucus do not respect him and will pressure him to get as much as they can from him. This scares moderate Republican members who fear that he will regularly cave in to the extremists.
Some Republican members represent swing districts that President Biden won in 2020, and Democrats are especially likely to target them if they support an extreme agenda. Moderate members of the “Problem Solvers Caucus” from both parties may thwart the rebels by enabling (or forcing) Mr. McCarthy to make deals on critical issues such as preventing the federal government from going into default.
The problem is aggravated by the fact that Mr. McCarthy cannot give the rebels what they really want, according to journalist Peter Beinart. He writes that the Republican base wants restoration of 1980s American culture – to make America great again in their view. These changes are beyond the ability of federal legislation to achieve.
The rebels know that they cannot pass substantive legislation because the Democrats control the Senate and White House. But this doesn’t matter to many of them because they are more interested in attracting publicity for their “culture war” than in enacting legislation.
Many of the rebels represent “safe” Republican districts, meaning that they don’t have to worry about losing in general elections – only in Republican primaries. As a result, they have strong incentives to constantly demonstrate that they are more extreme than possible primary opponents. This may backfire politically for Republicans in the 2024 elections if most voters are turned off by their performances.
The rebels’ victory in extracting concessions from Mr. McCarthy may be pyrrhic. He will have to negotiate with Democratic leaders, and he demonstrated they can’t rely on his promises.
This situation is bad for Republicans and the whole country. To be elected speaker, Mr. McCarthy agreed to negotiate by taking government the hostage to the rebels’ demands. We take for granted that the government will continue to operate, pay its bills, and handle pressing problems like dealing with natural disasters and keeping the airline system running reliably.
Like it or not, members of Congress will engage in repeated negotiations over the next two years. Mr. McCarthy’s poor negotiation skills may impede the government from protecting the public’s interests.