Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., prepares to make a statement in the U.S. Capitol on the mass shooting in Lewiston, Me., on Oct. 26, 2023.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., prepares to make a statement in the U.S. Capitol on the mass shooting in Lewiston, Me., on Oct. 26, 2023. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Image

New House speaker has a plan to avoid a shutdown—and to overhaul the civil service

Mike Johnson is giving his Republican colleagues options to keep agencies open while the larger spending fight plays out.

The new leader of the House has a history of proposals to reform the civil service and engaging in shutdown politics, though he appears disinclined to continue his opposition to keeping government open when current funding expires next month. 

After three weeks of chaos since Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s, R-Calif., ouster, House Republicans on Wednesday elected Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., as speaker. Johnson has served in leadership during the 118th Congress but was relatively unknown before he became the fourth Republican nominee for the speakership role this month. He perhaps won most notoriety by leading congressional efforts to decertify several states’ 2020 election results at the Supreme Court.

As he sought his new job, Johnson laid out a plan to keep government open past its current deadline. He said he would support a continuing resolution through either Jan. 15 or April 15 while the House continues voting on its full-year fiscal 2024 appropriations measures. Those bills are only winning approval along party lines as they include spending caps far below the levels House Republicans agreed to after negotiations with President Biden as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling. Johnson voted for that agreement, but told colleagues they should continue approving the smaller spending bills so they can then begin negotiations with the Senate and White House. Quickly after winning the speakership, Johnson began consideration of House Republicans’ fiscal 2024 Energy Department appropriations bill. 

Just a few weeks ago, Johnson took a different approach and voted against the stopgap bill that is now keeping agencies afloat through Nov. 17. 

The congressman said last month no one “desires a shutdown” but he was pushing to “change the weaponization of the federal agencies that are designed to protect and serve the American people and instead are being used against them.” 

Since joining Congress in 2017, Johnson has issued several proposals that would dramatically shake up the rules governing the federal workforce. On the House floor in February, Johnson said he would make it a top priority to end the expanded remote work agencies utilized during the pandemic. 

“It is beyond time to require the teleworking federal employees return to work in order to remedy widespread, terribly poor customer service,” Johnson said. “We have federal employees at all these agencies at all these agencies who literally have not come to work. Well, we're going to end that.” 

He previously led the Republican Study Committee, a large group of conservative lawmakers that issues policy recommendations. In that role, he pushed for a slew of changes to the civil service, including enactment of the Modern Employment Reform, Improvement, and Transformation (MERIT) Act. That measure would significantly reduce the time it takes to fire a federal worker for poor performance or misconduct, giving employees only 10 days to appeal removal decisions to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The bill would also exempt adverse personnel actions and reductions in force from negotiated grievance procedures, reduce the defined benefit annuity of a federal worker who is convicted of a felony and fired and provide agencies with the authority to rescind bonuses or other cash awards deemed to be “wrongly paid” to workers. It also sought to extend the probationary period for new hires from one year to two.

Johnson’s RSC report also included a proposal to eliminate the near-automatic step increases that most federal employees receive. 

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., (left) casts his vote as the House holds an election for a new speaker on Oct. 25, 2023. After a contentious nominating period that has seen four candidates over a three-week period, the House GOP conference selected Johnson as their nominee to succeed former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who was ousted on Oct. 4 in a move led by a small group of conservative members of his own party. ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

Also in the role as RSC chairman, Johnson sent a letter in 2020 calling for reforms during the COVID-19 crisis that included eliminating normal civil service hiring provisions across government for the duration of the pandemic. He also advocated for increasing pay for federal workers "with critical skills" and expanded use of cash bonuses to reward top performers. 

“The challenge of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best in many of America’s federal personnel,” Johnson wrote. “These patriotic civil servants, along with countless experts in the private sector and generous volunteers, have done their best to respond to an extraordinary global crisis. Still, the need for more highly trained and specialized workers to join the federal ranks has been made apparent.”

Johnson made another splash in federal workforce pandemic policy when he spearheaded the effort to overturn President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for executive branch employees and contractors. The congressman led a filing in federal court in support of a lawsuit that was eventually successful in knocking down Biden’s requirement. 

“We urge the court to defend the First Amendment rights of federal government contractors in this case,” Johnson said. “To the health care workers, first responders, service members, contractors and every hardworking American affected by President Biden's unconstitutional policies: We won't stop fighting for you.”

After several appeals from both sides, the Biden administration is now awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court on whether to review the case. 

In the immediate term—with Congress just three weeks from a shutdown—Johnson is pursuing what he called an “ambitious schedule” to complete the funding process. He hopes to finish passing all 12 annual appropriations bills by the Nov. 17 deadline, though he acknowledged Congress will need more time and therefore will support another stopgap bill. He will push for a short-term measure that keeps agencies funded at current levels through at least mid-January to “ensure the Senate cannot jam us with a Christmas omnibus.” The April option, for which some conservative lawmakers have previously advocated, would put agencies across government on the precipice of a sequestration due to a provision of the debt limit law. 

In the Senate, meanwhile, lawmakers this week resumed consideration of its first package of appropriations bills that have broad bipartisan support and comport with the spending caps in the Fiscal Responsibility Act. Johnson did not lay out a plan for the White House's proposed $106 billion in supplemental funding for aid for Ukraine, Israel, Gaza and the Indo-Pacific, as well as a hiring surge for immigration and border security agencies.