The rebellion against Representative Kevin McCarthy of California and his bid for the speakership is rooted not just in personal animosity, but in a deeply ideological drive by a group of hard-right conservatives to defund, disrupt and dismantle the federal government, and overhaul the way Congress works to make it easier to do so.
The dissidents who have challenged Mr. McCarthy have pressed for a balanced federal budget — one that would not permit any deficit spending — as well as for special rules that would make it easier for lawmakers to zero out federal offices and fire government workers, and would make it much harder to secure earmarks to direct federal money to individual projects. They want to heavily fortify the United States border with Mexico and dismantle the Internal Revenue Service, getting rid of federal income taxes and replacing them with a consumption tax.
To further their policy goals, they have also long pushed for overhauling the way the House operates to allow individual rank-and-file lawmakers to have more influence on what legislation is considered. Conservatives have long griped about the top-down power structure that has flourished in the House since Newt Gingrich, a Republican and former speaker, took office in 1995 and sought to undercut efforts to negotiate deals and pass legislation.
There is some legitimacy to the claim that rank-and-file lawmakers have been cut out of most high-level deal-making. The crush of work and the inability to meet deadlines has led to House and Senate leaders making huge legislative agreements among themselves and then forcing approval with little time for review.
The latest example was last month’s passage of a roughly $1.7 trillion government funding package that was thrust upon most lawmakers in the final days of work before Christmas, with little opportunity to review the details.
A New Congress Begins
The 118th Congress opened on Jan. 3, with Republicans taking control of the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
“America knows that Washington is broken,” Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, one of the ringleaders of the speaker mutiny, said Tuesday in pushing for the election of Andy Biggs, a fellow Arizona Republican. “A wise person once told me that a good process builds good policy, builds good politics. We have to return to them.”
While Mr. McCarthy had already pledged a series of changes designed to give rank-and-file lawmakers a greater say in the process, the far-right Republicans want commitments to embrace their policy agenda and give them powerful spots on congressional committees, things the California Republican has refused to do. They also wanted him to cease funding primary challengers in open Republican races, essentially promising not to try to knock out a right-wing conservative candidate with a more mainstream one, as he has often attempted to do.
Representative Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican and Freedom Caucus member who is supporting Mr. McCarthy, acknowledged frustration among a broad swath of members and said that a main element of the Republican feud is about “transparency.”
“One thing that people in the Freedom Caucus are asking for is more time to read bills before they are voted on,” said Mr. Buck, who said such guarantees could benefit both the supporters of Mr. McCarthy and his opponents.
The demands for additional changes come as several lawmakers in the new Republican majority have said they will withhold crucial votes to raise the limit on the nation’s ability to borrow unless Democrats in the Senate and White House agree to steep spending cuts.
The changes would make it vastly more difficult for a divided government to enact any basic legislation, let alone continue federal spending at its current levels and avoid broader economic catastrophe.
Incoming majorities of both parties in the past have promised more participation for rank-and-file lawmakers, more opportunity to offer amendments and more time to study legislation. When Mr. McCarthy proposed a rules package to dictate how the House would operate, he included measures that would require 72 hours’ notice before any votes on a bill and guardrails intended to rein in spending.
But leaders of both parties have in the past found that opening up the process slows the legislative work considerably, if not halts it altogether, and the new rules are then jettisoned in the interest of greater efficiency and fewer politically charged votes.