Today, the Speaker’s “paper” authority is less impressive than it seems. Without real party discipline, ambitious House members are more likely to invest their time and resources into how to grandstand politically than to build up a reputation for, say, committee work or legislative accomplishments. The institutional reforms Gingrich put in place incentivizes such behavior. As a result, the caucus that is the ground on which the Speaker holds and operates his office is soft, shifting, and bedeviled by ideologically fractious members. All one must do is look at the frustrations of Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan—two politicians of quite different stripes—to recognize that the problem goes deeper than the person holding that office at any given moment.
Although Kevin McCarthy is no Newt Gingrich, his speakership, if it does come to pass, might well be the logical result of the changes made to the office by Gingrich. His actions as Minority Leader are consonant with what Speakers are required to do today both to be elected and to hold on to the office once elected. To keep any semblance of coherence within the party, placating rather than leading is now the norm. It would be pollyannish to think a Speaker could be blind to the politics of the office. Nevertheless, when the office is hardly anything but partisan, what is lost is the Speaker’s responsibility to see that the institution itself is in good working order as a representative and deliberative body.