10 min read

Meet the new House speaker

Mike Johnson is now the 56th Speaker of the House. Who is he, and what does his ascension mean for Washington?
Meet the new House speaker
The new Speaker of the House of Representatives. (C-SPAN)

Finally, the House has a speaker. I know I’ve been covering the chaos in the House a lot lately, so thanks for bearing with me — trust me, I’m looking forward to being able to cover other things as well.

But I hope you’ve found value in my coverage these past few weeks. I’ve tried to approach this story — like every story — from a different angle than you see in other news outlets, trying to focus on potential solutions and giving a broader context by pulling in historical examples to help explain what’s going on.

This week, that included pieces on a theoretical non-partisan speaker and the dynamics driving the lack of unity within the GOP.

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Quick scheduling note: The newsletter will be off tomorrow, October 27, because I’ll be headed home for a family wedding. See you on the flip side!

And now, to the news:

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) was sworn in as the 56th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday. He was elected in a 220-209 vote; for the first time since 2009, every House Republican voted for the party’s speaker nominee. Johnson’s ascension to the post ended the 22-day interregnum sparked by Kevin McCarthy’s ouster, the longest the country has gone without a House speaker since Sam Rayburn’s death in 1961.

“Let the enemies of freedom hear us loud and clear,” Johnson declared after taking office. “The people’s House is back in business.”

Later down in the newsletter, I’ll walk through some of the policy implications of Johnson’s election and dig into where the House will go from here. But first, let’s answer the question that is probably on many of your tongues: who the heck is this guy?

Meet Mike Johnson

Johnson, 51, is a fourth-term member of the House, having represented the northwestern region of Louisiana since 2017. Until yesterday, he was the House Republican Conference vice chair, the No. 6 position on the party’s leadership ladder, which means he catapulted ahead of several higher-ranked colleagues to claim the gavel.

Johnson, an evangelical Christian conservative, began his career as an attorney at the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a group best known for its role as a litigant in several key Supreme Court cases, including the Dobbs decision which overturned the right to abortion. In 2017, he voted for a 20-week abortion ban; last year, he cheered Louisiana’s 15-week abortion ban, which includes a prison sentence for doctors who perform illegal abortions and does not make exceptions for rape or incest.

Before being elected to Congress, Johnson served one term as a Louisiana state representative. While in the state legislature, he introduced a controversial bill that would have prevented the state government from taking any “adverse action against a person...on the basis that such person acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction about the institution of marriage.” (The measure died in committee; only one other Republican supported it.)

CNN has unearthed writings by Johnson from the mid-2000s, during his time at ADF, in which he advocated for banning same-sex marriage and called homosexuality an “inherently unnatural” and “dangerous lifestyle” that would lead to “chaos and sexual anarchy.”

Johnson also served on former President Donald Trump’s defense team during his first impeachment and as a “key architect” of Trump’s plan to overturn the 2020 election, as the New York Times put it last year. After the 2020 vote, Trump personally recruited Johnson to organize House Republicans to sign an amicus brief in favor of a Texas lawsuit that would have invalidated the election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

When Johnson was about his stance on the 2020 election this week, he refused to answer. In a striking scene, House Republicans booed the questioner and told her to “shut up”:

In Congress, Johnson has a more substantial legislative record than many of his rivals for the speakership. According to the Center for Effective Lawmaking, his “Legislative Effectiveness Score” — which measures a lawmaker’s ability to get bills through the legislative process — is in the 88th percentile for House Republicans. He serves on the Armed Services and Judiciary Committees, where he has built productive working relationships across the aisle.

“He is someone that ideologically, we couldn’t be further apart, but he’s a decent individual,” Rep. Troy Carter (D-LA) told Politico. “He’s a decent human being and one that is civil, respectful, and one that I believe we can work with.”

Johnson voted in favor of the bipartisan debt ceiling deal earlier this year; last month, he opposed the stopgap funding bill to avert a government shutdown and a bill providing $300 million in aid to Ukraine.

The son of teenage parents, Johnson was the first in his family to receive a college degree. His father was a firefighter disabled in the line of duty. “It is the beauty of America that allows a firefighter’s kid like me to come here and serve in this sacred chamber,” Johnson said on Wednesday.

Where do we go from here?

There’s no getting around it: Congress has a lot on its plate the next few months. Here are the main pieces of legislation Speaker Johnson will now be charged with ushering through the House:

  • A government funding bill (expires November 17)
  • A defense authorization bill, setting military policy and funding levels (expires December 31)
  • An FAA authorization bill, setting policy and funding levels for the Federal Aviation Administration (expires December 31)
  • A farm bill, setting policy and funding levels for food stamps and agricultural programs (expired September 30)

After taking the gavel, Johnson jumped right into legislating on Wednesday, initiating a vote on a resolution declaring support for Israel. (The measure passed almost unanimously, with 10 Democrats opposed and six Democrats abstaining.) With a government shutdown looming in almost two weeks, he also restarted the appropriations process, which had been lying dormant while the House had been without a leader.

In a letter to colleagues, Johnson laid out an ambitious plan to approve the 12 appropriations bills, starting with the energy and water bill — which he kicked off debate on Wednesday — and continuing with another bill each week.

Remember: to keep the government open past November 17, Congress will either have to pass all 12 appropriations bills or approve another stopgap fix, known as a continuing resolution (CR). But it is virtually impossible that the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-led House will agree on all 12 bills in that time, so a CR is the only real option to avoid a shutdown.

Importantly, in his letter, Johnson called for a CR that would either extend government funding until January 15 or April 15, depending on what his GOP colleagues would support. McCarthy’s support for a CR was a major factor in his ouster — although early signs indicate that right-wing rebels might give Johnson, a staunch conservative, more leeway to pass a CR than they granted McCarthy.

“There’s a new level of trust with Speaker Johnson that didn’t exist previously,” Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), one of the eight Republicans who voted to remove McCarthy, told Politico.

Another major dilemma heading Johnson’s way is whether to hold a vote on President Biden’s $105 billion package funding U.S. border security and providing aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan. “We’re not doing any policy tonight,” Johnson told reporters on Tuesday, when he was asked about the package.

But members on both sides of the conference decidedly are talking policy. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), another anti-McCarthy ringleader, suggested Wednesday that Johnson was prohibited from bringing any Israel-Ukraine bill to the floor because a majority of House Republicans opposed it. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), meanwhile, said that it was his “understanding” that Johnson planned to allow the package to receive a floor vote.

House Republicans may have a new speaker, but the divides separating the conference are the same as ever.

A few more thoughts

This flurry of legislative deadlines, as well as pressure to provide aid to two U.S. allies at war, would be difficult for any newly minted speaker to navigate.

But it will be doubly so for Johnson, who is taking office with less House experience than any speaker since 1883.

He also has spent far less time in party leadership than the typical speaker and has never led a House committee. To visualize this, here’s a chart of every House speaker since 1940. The bars show how many years they had served in Congress upon assuming the speakership for the first time; the line charts how many years they had spent in party leadership or as chair or ranking member of a House committee.

Johnson, as you can see, ranks at the bottom for both metrics.

(Chart by Wake Up To Politics)

This means two things: he has a steep learning curve ahead of him — but he also hasn’t had the time to make any real enemies in any faction of the House GOP. That lack of baggage might allow him, at least at first, to make deals that McCarthy couldn’t; it also helps explain how Johnson — a relatively unknown lawmaker — was able to ascend to the House’s highest office.

Over the last three weeks, conservatives vetoed McCarthy and Steve Scalise, then moderates vetoed Jim Jordan, then conservatives vetoed Tom Emmer. By this week, both factions had ruled out the other’s top picks; many members were ready to move on and just align behind anyone they could stomach. Johnson was the highest-ranked member of leadership who hadn’t been around long enough to piss anyone off. Hence, his becoming speaker.

Of course, Johnson is no moderate. He is a staunch social conservative who, like Jordan, played a key role in the efforts to overturn the 2020 election. But, importantly, his public profile is much lower than Jordan’s. He does not excel at the theatrics; his work was much more behind the scenes. This difference — plus their exhaustion at the whole mess — is what made moderates feel like they could vote for Johnson, despite their rejection of Jordan.

Still, it is a vote Democrats are unlikely to let them forget. Johnson’s ascension fits neatly into the pre-baked Democratic narrative about “MAGA Republicans” and will help the party hammer two points central to their 2024 message: abortion and election denial. “Johnson is Jim Jordan with a sport coat,” Democratic operatives have already started proclaiming, a line you can expect to hear more in the coming months.

Will any of this have a real impact come 2024? I’m skeptical. With Donald Trump and Joe Biden — two much better-known names — on the ballot, it’s hard to imagine Mike Johnson pushing the needle one way or the other. If anything, his greatest impact on the campaign will likely be in how much money he is able to rake in for House Republicans.

McCarthy was a fundraising wizard, bringing in more than $28 million for the part last cycle. Johnson, by comparison, raised $1.4 million last cycle. Again, a steep learning curve.

In his first speech as speaker, which you can watch below in full, Johnson sounded several notes of bipartisanship, promising to work across the aisle. But to avert a government shutdown, he will need to negotiate with many senators and House members with whom he has no prior relationships. He and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), his new counterpart, have never met; Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the top Senate GOP appropriator, said Wednesday that she’d have to Google him.

Finally, stepping away from the politics of it all for a moment: Just imagine the personal transformation Johnson is going through right now.

As Fox News anchor Bret Baier noted, Johnson started yesterday 213th in House seniority; he ended the day second in line to the presidency. As speaker of the House, Johnson will now receive a nearly 30% salary bump, a massive security detail, and codes that would allow him to order a nuclear strike in case of a presidential succession crisis.

He currently has a staff of just 13; he will soon be surrounded by handlers and favor-seekers. As Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman wrote, Johnson will now move from “the small basement hideaway he currently occupies as vice chair of the conference to a massive ornate suite on the second floor of the Capitol.” He has gone from organizing House Republican op-eds to fielding presidential phone calls.

Few, if any, lawmakers in modern history have made so sudden a jump in status. Now we will see what he does with it.

(Lindsay Wise / Twitter)

More news to know.

— A manhunt is underway in Lewiston, Maine after a man shot and killed at least 16 people last night at a bar and bowling alley. The suspect is a firearms instructor. Read more

The U.S. economy expanded at an annual rate of 4.9% last quarter, the highest rate of growth since 2021. Read more

Donald Trump was fined $10,000 yesterday for violating a gag order in his New York civil fraud trial. Trump later stormed out of the courtroom, appearing to surprise even his own lawyers. Read more

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