How Mike Johnson went from ‘who?’ to House speaker
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For now, at least, some of the right-wing members who sparred with former Speaker Kevin McCarthy over spending and other matters before his historic ouster on Oct. 3 indicated they would give Speaker Johnson the benefit of the doubt as he gets his feet under him.
“You don’t blame the backup quarterback for the failures of the guy that just came out of the game,” Scott Perry, chair of the hard-line Freedom Caucus, told reporters ahead of the vote.
Mr. Johnson laid out an ambitious plan for accomplishing one of conservatives’ top priorities: passing all 12 appropriations bills, a process that has gotten logjammed more often than not in recent years. The goal is to avoid a massive “omnibus” spending bill that gives members little time to read what they’re funding or weigh in on funding levels for specific departments.
“I am confident we can accomplish that objective quickly, in a manner that delivers on our principled commitment to rein in wasteful spending, and put our country back on a path to fiscal responsibility,” wrote Mr. Johnson in a two-page memo to colleagues.
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According to his proposed timetable, the House would vote on the remaining eight bills by the Nov. 17 deadline, or extend funding temporarily to January or April in order to complete the process. That, he said, would give the House the upper hand in negotiations with the Democratic-led Senate and avoid a Christmas omnibus.
Mr. Johnson is known for his genial manner. Upon his election, he started his remarks by acknowledging the contributions of overworked House staffers, the families of members of Congress, and former Speaker McCarthy. He also extended an olive branch to Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.
“I know that in your heart you love and care about this country and you want to do what’s right. We are going to find common ground there,” he said, receiving a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.
Why everyone has to Google “Mike Johnson”
Despite serving as head of the conservative congressional Republican Study Committee, and vice chair of the GOP conference, Mr. Johnson was so little known that even prominent Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins told reporters they would have to Google him.
A southern Baptist and constitutional lawyer, he had long worked in support of conservative policy positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. He is seen as more of a policy wonk in the mold of former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. Among the eight other candidates for speaker in the second-to-last round, Mr. Johnson had sponsored 46 bills, and had the highest share of sponsored legislation passed out of committee. However, only a few of his bills had Democratic co-sponsors, resulting in just 13% passing out of the House.
Among the more controversial pieces of legislation he sponsored was the Stop Sexualization of Children Act of 2022, which critics dubbed a federal version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law – but with expanded scope. The bill proposed limiting federal funding of sex education to children age 10 and older, noting that some school districts had introduced sex education for children as young as kindergarten that included discussions of gender identity.
Mr. Johnson is also controversial for his work limiting abortion access, which has earned him an A-plus rating from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. In 2019, he joined 177 colleagues in co-sponsoring a bill prohibiting abortion nationwide after 20 weeks.
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Amicus brief to overturn 2020 election
But the issue Democrats and other critics highlighted most prominently was Mr. Johnson’s role in challenging the results of the 2020 election, calling him an “election denier.” The constitutional lawyer, educated at Louisiana State University, spearheaded an amicus brief signed by 126 House Republicans in support of a case against four swing states, brought by the Texas attorney general.
The case alleged that the sweeping electoral changes those states enacted in the run-up to the 2020 election circumvented the constitutionally designated role of state legislatures. The Supreme Court threw out the case, saying Texas did not have standing to bring it.
Even if the case was brought by a state with standing, “it would still lack merit,” says Edward Foley, a constitutional law professor at The Ohio State University. For example, in lower courts there were “definitive rulings rejecting the claims that there was any basis for overturning the certification of the election in favor of President Biden in Pennsylvania,” one of the four swing states involved.
Even those who say that some of the arguments may have had merit say that such electoral changes would have had to have been challenged prior to Election Day; otherwise, voters would be unfairly disenfranchised.
“The time to bring most of these objections would have been before the election, while the violation was occurring – before all of the votes were accepted and tallied, rather than after the fact in terms of trying to change your election results,” says Michael Morley, a professor at Florida State University College of Law who is known for his work on post-election litigation.
Moreover, adds Professor Foley, there were not enough ballots in question to have overturned the election in Pennsylvania alone – and it would have taken at least three states to undo Mr. Biden’s election.
Mr. Johnson, who at the time also raised other concerns about the 2020 election, including the now-debunked issue of voting machines from Venezuela, did not address 2020 election concerns in his speech on the House floor today. But in a lengthy interview with The New Yorker in December 2020, he said that if such legal challenges failed, “and Joe Biden is the President, then what we do in America is work for the next election cycle” – something he outlined on his timeline for House GOP activity over the next year.
Warning to world’s “enemies of freedom”
In remarks before the full House on Wednesday, the newly elected speaker described himself as the son of a firefighter and the first in his family to graduate from college. He spoke of his conviction – rooted in his faith – that all of his fellow lawmakers have been “ordained” by God to serve the country at this critical time.
“A strong America is good for the entire world,” he said in his maiden speech, which received several bipartisan standing ovations. “We are the beacon of freedom and we must preserve this grand experiment in self-governance.”
He called America’s record debt its No. 1 national security issue, and called for a bipartisan debt commission to begin work immediately.
Last, Speaker Johnson addressed the world, which he noted had been watching this drama unfold over the past few weeks.
“We want our allies around the world to know that this body of lawmakers is reporting again to our duty stations,” he said. “Let the enemies of freedom around the world hear us loud and clear: The people’s House is back in business.”
Indeed, within an hour, Chairman Michael McCaul of the House Foreign Affairs Committee was on the floor introducing his resolution supporting Israel in “defend[ing] itself against the barbaric war launched by Hamas and other terrorists.“ The resolution passed 412-10.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to more accurately describe the McCaul resolution on Israel.