Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., meets with reporters
Members are starting to grumble about leadership and some are wondering if Johnson knows what he’s doing. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Is Mike Johnson Just Bad at This?

Frustrations among Republican rank and file are starting to bubble over.

Members of Congress have a few basic expectations for whoever holds the speaker’s gavel, and Rep. Mike Johnson isn’t meeting them.

Johnson is failing on multiple fronts: Lawmakers don’t know what the House will work on each week and the chamber’s schedule frequently falls apart. Republicans are forced to take uncomfortable or pointless votes. They don’t have much clarity into Johnson’s strategic thinking. The only area they think Johnson is doing particularly well in right now is fundraising.

“Everybody’s frustrated. I’m frustrated,” Florida Rep. Byron Donalds told reporters. GOP leaders, Donalds argued, should strategize further in advance, make firm decisions and stick to them.

“There’s a lot of paralysis of analysis,” Donalds said. “When I was in college and we played spades all the time, if somebody looked at their hand and kept looking at the board and looking at their hand, we would yell at them, ‘Study long, study wrong.’”

Each week since Johnson won the speakership a little under four months ago, House members have traveled to the nation’s capital uncertain if their planned work will actually come to fruition. Government spending legislation, messaging bills and procedural votes that are supposed to be eye-wateringly boring have all collapsed — publicly, and often embarrassingly.

Are Republicans just flying by the seats of their pants? “Oh no, we ain’t flying,” Donalds answered. “Right now, we’ve, like, crashed.”

Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, is also feeling pessimistic. “It’s been better,” he said Thursday.

Members are starting to grumble about their leadership — and some are wondering if Johnson, a relative newcomer to the chamber who won the speakership primarily because he didn’t have any enemies in the GOP conference — knows what he’s doing. A spokesperson for Johnson declined a request for comment on this story.

This week’s incident: Johnson pulled a spy powers reauthorization bill from the House schedule as his party fought over the legislation. It was Johnson’s second attempt to bring such a bill forward, and the second time he raised a white flag when he realized his approach couldn’t win enough votes. On Wednesday, the House also defeated a procedural vote Johnson had promised some of his members on tax breaks for high-income married couples in blue states. Before that, GOP leaders attempted to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and pass a stand-alone aid package for Israel, both of which failed in dramatic fashion. (They were able to impeach Mayorkas on their second attempt by a single vote.)

Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, a more moderate member of the conference, said Johnson has been hamstrung by trying to keep everyone unified. The speaker should have plowed ahead with the surveillance authorities vote this week instead of catering to conservatives, according to Bacon. “If you can get the majority of Republicans on board, go with it,” he said. “You can’t please everybody.”

Freshman Rep. John Duarte of California acknowledged Johnson doesn’t have as much experience as members who usually grow into the role after years of rising through the ranks: “He’s the man we have. I mean, we went through all of our experienced candidates, right?”

Duarte told NOTUS Johnson is doing the best he can.

“I support him. If he’s Plan B, D, E or F, I don’t want to have to go through Plan G, H, I or J or K,” Duarte said.

And Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Georgia Republican, said the senior House Republicans who might have more institutional knowledge and the relationships needed to handle such a slim majority also “have enough experience to know to stay away from the job.”

As they struggle to pass their own agenda, morale is low. Republicans’ margins are so thin and the rifts between members run so deep that Rep. Garret Graves, an ally of ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy, called it “coalition government.”

“I don’t really view what we have as a majority,” he told NOTUS.

Twenty-one House Republicans are planning to retire or seek other offices at the end of their terms. Several of them are young, chair powerful committees and have been seen as serious legislators with a lot of potential to keep rising through the ranks. (It’s almost as if the House GOP conference isn’t a satisfying or productive place to work.)

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Governing will only get more difficult for the rest of the year. With this week’s Democratic victory in a special election to replace expelled Rep. George Santos, Republican leaders will soon have a meager two-vote majority. “I was out for a while because I fell off a ladder,” Rep. Greg Steube of Florida said. “If you have somebody who has an accident and can’t be here, now you have significant challenges to just doing regular order on the floor.”

That’s why most Republicans — even if they’re tired of this tumultuous new normal — refuse to blame Johnson.

“I don’t believe that Mike’s position has been undermined,” said Rep. Ken Buck, a retiring Republican from Colorado. “It’s very hard to govern with a very small majority.”

And Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole said Wednesday that Republicans have “got the right guy” as speaker, but the conference is contending with members who are “putting their individual goals, or their individual animus, ahead of what’s good for the team and what the majority of the team wants to do.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “politics is still a team sport.” Cole has been around the block and witnessed a lot of dysfunction, but nothing has quite matched the House’s foibles over the past year. “Frustration is built into the system here,” he told NOTUS in an interview last week. But he isn’t ready to throw in the towel: “These are setbacks, not defeats.”

With only a couple of votes to spare on bills Democrats oppose, Johnson has often bypassed Cole’s committee entirely by suspending the rules to pass uncontroversial bills with overwhelming bipartisan support. That approach has helped avoid government shutdowns, but it may not be a sustainable way to avoid conflict as another government-funding deadline approaches and GOP lawmakers grow restless.

“I don’t like a lot of this suspension stuff,” right-wing Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona told NOTUS on Tuesday. “The American people deserve to see us debating, they deserve to see transparency. And we need the regular order.”

Where does blame for the chamber’s dysfunction lie?

“The flaws — and I want to say this delicately — I think that this comes from the very top,” Biggs answered. The speaker “ultimately decides what’s going to go on the floor, when it’s going to go on the floor.”

If Johnson isn’t able to keep his right flank happy, criticism like that could ultimately escalate into a full-blown ouster attempt, as McCarthy experienced last year.

At least one Republican who voted to remove McCarthy is firmly in the new speaker’s corner though. Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee praised Johnson’s Christian faith and family life in an interview this week and blamed recent failed votes on simple counting errors. Johnson impressed Burchett back home in Knoxville this past week, he added, when he spoke at a fundraiser.

“We had record attendance, and we raised a whole lot of money,” said Burchett.

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS. John T. Seward is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.