The Dispatch

Thwack! With the bang of a gavel on October 3, 2023, Patrick McHenry made history as the first congressman who, upon the moment of his ascension to the role of speaker of the House of Representatives, was overcome with feelings of visible anger.

“Frustration boiled over in that moment,” McHenry told The Dispatch in late December of the video that went viral on social media months earlier. The feeling was, of course, perfectly understandable: The House of Representatives had just successfully used a “motion to vacate” for the first time in history to eject a sitting speaker, who happened to be McHenry’s close friend and ally Kevin McCarthy. “It was a realization that I had a few Republicans attempting to commit political suicide and taking all of us for a ride,” McHenry recalled, plus “the emotion of my friend being punished, though he only had legislative success.”

The North Carolina Republican had found out only a couple weeks earlier that McCarthy had placed McHenry’s name atop a list of lawmakers who would assume the role of speaker pro tempore in the event the office of speaker became vacant. The law governing such vacancies hadn’t come into play since it was passed after 9/11, and what McHenry did next—or rather, what he didn’t do—made history that actually mattered.

Although several respected scholars and political analysts argued that the post-9/11 law gave the speaker pro tempore the powers of a normal speaker, McHenry concluded that wasn’t the case. He first sought advice from the House parliamentarian, who told McHenry that “everything you do, and everything you say, will set a precedent that will be parsed in the future.” The parliamentarian advised McHenry that the speaker pro tempore was only supposed to carry out the election of the next speaker, and McHenry agreed—for reasons both principled and practical.

“The plain reading of the Constitution and how the first Congress interpreted it, and every Congress since, is that until you elect a speaker you can’t do anything else,” McHenry told The Dispatch in a phone interview. “The post-9/11 reform contemplated a mass casualty event, not a political suicide event. So in a mass casualty event … a remnant of Congress would meet in a bunker somewhere, and the first order of business would be, ‘Who’s the speaker?’ And in that event, we would have gotten on with that very quickly.”

McHenry also noted there was a second, “very practical” argument for the path he chose, which is that “Congress will inevitably delay the hard thing for as long as possible because it’s the hard thing.” And so, for three weeks, work in the House ground to a halt as the chamber’s Republican conference ultimately made its way toward electing Speaker Mike Johnson.

Whether or not you agree with McHenry’s interpretation of the law, listening to the 48-year-old congressman talk about how he thought about the questions before him and his role as speaker pro tempore is to realize that he is, perhaps above all else, an institutionalist.

“I made the active decision to desire nothing out of this,” he said when asked why he didn’t enter the race for speaker. “I made that active decision that the best thing for my party and for the institution was to want nothing, and if I stayed in that zone, the process would have integrity.”

When McHenry announced in December that he would not seek reelection in November (but will serve out his term that ends one year from today), Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute wrote that McHenry’s “departure will be a terrible loss not only for Republicans but for Congress as an institution.” It’s hard to disagree with that assessment. After nearly two decades in the House—serving in key leadership roles of chief deputy whip and chairman of the Financial Services Committee—McHenry has both the knowledge of and a feel for how the institution works that can’t quickly be attained.

As Levin noted, by implementing a conference rule establishing six-year term-limits for committee chairmen, House Republicans offered McHenry little incentive to stick around, because he would not be able to continue serving as chairman of the financial services committee in 2025. But McHenry nevertheless defended committee term limits as a good thing: “It sharpens public policy up, connects it much more with what the institution wants, not just what the committee chairs desire.”

“It feels like I’ve made my contribution and now it’s time for a new leader to be elected,” he continued. But would he have stuck around if he still had a role to play as a top adviser to Speaker McCarthy? “It is what it is,” he replied.

McHenry played a key role in helping McCarthy win the speakership in January 2023, and he was adamant his friend from California couldn’t have secured the majority support he needed without agreeing to lower the threshold to force a vote on a motion to vacate to just one member of Congress—the move that eventually did him in.

Asked if Matt Gaetz, the bomb-throwing Florida Republican who brought forward the motion to vacate, emerged from the fight as a winner, McHenry responded with some questions of his own: “Are you looking for political crowing? Are you looking for public policy wins? Those things are very different.” He believes it’s too early to know whether Gaetz will benefit from his behavior because that outcome will depend, among other things, on GOP primary voters in Florida and the decisions of House GOP leadership.

McHenry, who voted against Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, also said it is too soon to say how the GOP standard bearer has changed the party. “Every president makes a mark,” he said, but “it’s not fully understood until that person’s off the scene. So it’s still too early to tell what those lasting consequences are.”

But McHenry was not at all reluctant to speak freely about what he sees as the House’s biggest institutional failures and challenges. At the top of his mind is a broken budgeting process. “You now have firmly entrenched in folks in both parties’ minds that the 1974 Budget Act has been a failure, so we have to change our budgeting rules,” he said. The law governs the budgeting process and establishes a timetable for passing appropriations bills, but “since 1974, for a majority of the years, we have not enacted appropriation bills on time.”

One problem with the budgeting rules, he argued, is the congressional calendar. “Our fiscal year [end] being September 30 doesn’t conform with the congressional calendar,” McHenry said. “We’ve traditionally been on recess in August, and we’re supposed to come back and in three weeks time appropriate. It doesn’t make sense. That’s just one component of it.”

A father of three children under 10, McHenry also said it would make sense to adjust the calendar to make work in the House more family friendly: “We have a heavy load during the summer when our kids are out of school. We’ve got to shift the calendar a bit, to make sense for families.”

Another frustration for McHenry is the centralization of power in Congress. “We’ve had, for most years since the turn of the century, crisis politics dominating and large legislative packages becoming the full crux of the Congress,” he noted. While those big omnibus spending packages concentrate power among House and Senate leaders, McHenry believes “we should have hundreds of bills that get enacted in the law, because they are bipartisan reforms and changes that are evolutionary, not revolutionary.”

Asked to identify other major institutional challenges facing the House, one of the first things McHenry mentioned was the upper limit on staff pay. “We have to build out the committee power structure in a more significant way, which means expertise,” he said. “You need to have quality staff members that can be appropriately compensated, and we’ve made steps there, but I think we’ve got more work to do.”

“You especially need staff to be able to go toe-to-toe with the people they’re regulating or overseeing in the executive branch, which means you need to get the highest quality folks,” he added. “You can’t have the executive branch and the judicial branch on a higher pay scale than Congress. That is absurd, and really stupid for Congress to disadvantage ourselves in this game of checks and balances.”

Congressional staff pay had, until 2021, been capped at member pay, and members of Congress have not had a pay raise since the Great Recession. If the salaries of senators and congressmen had kept pace with inflation, they would now be earning more than $250,000 per year, rather than the $174,000 annual salary in effect since 2009.

McHenry believes member pay itself needs to increase in order to incentivize “credible people to run for office that want to serve the public and to be effective legislators.”

“Most of us live on the salary. And then, you know, the very wealthy few end up dominating the news because of their personal stock trades, when most of us don’t have wealth,” he said. McHenry conceded, however, that voters likely have little sympathy on this matter because the “public view is that Congress is not getting much done, and that’s for damn sure been the case [in 2023].”

Still, McHenry remains an optimist about the future of the House as an institution. “By having such a terrible, awful, no good, lousy year,” he said, “this should be the moment where my party comes back to, ‘What the hell are we about?’ And, ‘What are we here to achieve?’”

“I’m leaving because I know my time is done,” he said, adding that he has “no idea” what he will do when he departs next year. “And that should be reassuring to the public that even politicians recognize when their time is up.”

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