In his first big test as House speaker – coming up with a credible plan to avert a government shutdown, which passed the chamber on a bipartisan vote on Tuesday – Mike Johnson, R-La., has offered a sign that he might be a more skillful and pragmatic leader than many thought possible.
Granted, that is faint praise, given how low the expectations were for the fourth-term congressman, who just three weeks ago was plucked from relative obscurity to become speaker amid a meltdown by his party. And the initial significant package passed on his watch, which paired $14.3 billion in emergency funding for Israel with an equal amount of cuts to the Internal Revenue Service, did not inspire confidence in his seriousness.
But Johnson deserves credit for finding a path to keeping the government open, at least for now.
You can argue that what the speaker has put forward to avoid a Saturday shutdown is transparently gimmicky, but anyone who has been paying attention to the disintegration of the federal budget process has seen far worse. Johnson’s proposal sets up two deadlines – one in mid-January and another in early February – when different parts of the government would run out of money.
The fact that this was initially proposed by far-right Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., gave rise to suspicions that the bifurcated structure was just a ruse to give conservatives more leverage, but hard-liners quickly turned on their own idea when the speaker refused to include the deep spending cuts they were demanding as part of the deal. Meanwhile, Democrats in the White House and the Senate who first mocked the idea are sounding open to it – probably because they haven’t been able to come up with anything better that could pass.
Looked at another way, Johnson’s adoption of a “laddered” plan is a challenge to Congress to get back to working in the more orderly fashion that it was designed to operate.
It has been 26 years since the branch of government entrusted with the power of the purse has followed “regular order” – that is, managed to pass all of its individual appropriations bills by the start of the new fiscal year. For that matter, it has been four years since the two houses of Congress have agreed upon even a single regular spending bill and sent it to the president’s desk.
Instead, what has become normal is a chaotic process in which funding for the entire government is thrown together into multithousand-page “continuing resolutions,” cobbled together behind closed doors in leadership offices – usually under the deadline of a looming government shutdown and often at Christmastime. Things get inserted into the bill or taken out with no accountability or transparency.
What Johnson is trying to do – and it’s an admirable goal – is to nudge the appropriations committees of both houses to get back to doing their jobs.
Some of the individual spending measures are closer to the finish line than others. This year, the Republican-led House managed to pass its version of eight appropriations bills, and the Democratic Senate has passed only three.
The big thing to watch now is what lawmakers do with the additional time that Congress has been given to pass regular appropriations bills. Will the two houses actually engage, or will they continue avoiding one another and their responsibility to the taxpayers whose money they spend?
Meanwhile, there is likely to be another negotiation involving leaders of the Senate and House, as well as the Biden White House, on whether to adjust the overall discretionary spending caps they agreed to as part of their May deal to raise the debt ceiling.
And it is still unclear how other urgent priorities, including emergency aid for Ukraine and Israel, will be dealt with.
Before the House vote on Tuesday, Johnson mixed a couple of metaphors as he spoke with reporters: “I’ve been drinking from Niagara Falls for the last three weeks. … This place is a pressure cooker.”
One veteran GOP lawmaker, who was skeptical of the untested speaker, told me Johnson has so far been impressive during meetings they have both attended. “He knows what he doesn’t know. He doesn’t try to hide that. But he’s smart,” the congressman told me. “He’s not in it just for the fight. He’s actually for moving things.”
Johnson vows that he will change the way that Congress works. Getting it to work at all would be a start.
Karen Tumulty is an associate editor and columnist covering national politics. She joined The Post in 2010 from Time magazine and has also worked at the Los Angeles Times.