Patrick McHenry isn’t exactly a household name, but he might be about to land a starring role in the House Speaker drama. The Republican who represents North Carolina’s deep red Tenth Congressional District is currently serving his tenth term in the House of Representatives. He became speaker pro tempore after Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was ousted from the chair earlier this month. As the GOP conference struggles to find a nominee around whom the party can unite, at least for the time being, some members are coming around to the idea of giving McHenry the authority to carry out all the Speaker’s duties. Why can’t he do so already? Well, that is not entirely clear – even among veterans of Congress.
It’s essentially a Schrödinger’s cat situation. McHenry both is and is not the House Speaker.
Born and raised in North Carolina, McHenry is a 47-year-old father of three, was once the youngest member of Congress – having been first elected at the age of 29 – and likes to wear bow ties. He has been in politics his whole life, practically. Before entering the House in 2004, McHenry was in the North Carolina legislature and worked on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.
It would seem to be a good stopgap solution: Give the current speaker pro tempore the means to move the business of the House forward. Meanwhile, either Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the current speaker-designate, can shore up his support and win a House vote to claim the gavel or another candidate could emerge who will prove acceptable to both the conservative and moderate wings of the party.
Unfortunately for Republicans – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say because of them – even McHenry’s status is in dispute. Former Speaker McCarthy doesn’t see a problem. He says McHenry should already have the authority to lead the House. “You want the continuity of government to work,” the California Republican told Fox News. “[McHenry] should already have that authority. Congress should be able to be moving forward, because a speaker doesn’t change the outcome of a vote, the bills come through committee.”
Though it appears that even some Democrats are willing to support an expansion of McHenry’s authority, Republicans are still at odds. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) says keeping McHenry on for an extended 90 days with expanded authority is “absolutely not” an option.
House Speaker Confusion
The rules of the House of Representatives don’t say much about the position of speaker pro tempore. Rule I, which deals with the House Speaker, lays out the conditions for appointing a speaker pro tempore, one of which is in the case of a vacancy. According to section 8 (3)(A) of rule I, the appointee “shall act as Speaker pro tempore until the election of a Speaker or a Speaker pro tempore.” McHenry was not elected to his current position but appointed by McCarthy.
This section of the House rules also says, “Pending such election the Member acting as Speaker pro tempore may exercise such authorities of the Office of Speaker as may be necessary and appropriate to that end.”
This is the only guidance House members have to go by until they elect a new speaker. What constitutes “necessary and appropriate”? That is really up to the members themselves, the party leaders in the House, and the Rules Committee. The lower chamber of Congress, much like the Senate, is a self-governing body. Thus, it would be no seismic event or constitutional crisis if Democrats and Republicans got together and hammered out a deal to allow McHenry the leeway to move House business forward until a new speaker is elected. But, of course, this is Congress we are talking about – and that would just be too easy.