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US Aid Package for Ukraine Shortly to Pass

A dramatic concession by US House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson has led to the United States Congress suddenly being poised to pass a US$65 billion package of military aid for Ukraine after five months of delay, amidst fierce protests and pleading on the part of the Ukrainian government that this financial assistance is needed to support the war effort.

The US Senate, the US federal legislature’s upper house, has already passed a draft bill giving effect to the aid package but under US constitutional law legislation of this kind must be passed by both Houses. Moreover it is a rule in the US House of Representatives that legislation of this kind is not subject just to a simple up-down vote by a majority of its 435 members; the legislation must first be placed up for a vote and under current US House rules this lies in the single prerogative of the House Speaker. This rule was taken from the British system of government but in a very different context. In the UK House of Commons, the Speaker, is a bipartisan, non-political figure who is often not a member of the party that forms the government of the day or a majority of the members of the House of Commons. Instead he is elected by the members of the Commons from time to time for being an exceptionally moderate member of his own party - a centrist - widely respected as a paragon of the virtues of parliamentary procedure and capable of attracting the overwhelming support of members of the House irrespective of their party affiliation.

In the United States House of Representatives this rule has been subverted so that the Speaker of the House is now always a member of the dominant political party in the House, at the current time the Republicans, because in the United States House of Representatives the vote for House Speaker takes place on party political lines whereas in the United Kingdom does not. Moreover this has been intentionally engineered to be the case because the Americans spotted that the parliamentary system they inherited from the British in fact vests great power in the Speaker if (s)he is able unilaterally to advance or to prevent the advancement of any piece of legislation. In other words the Speaker can act as a blocking veto of one.

In the United Kingdom the Speaker never does this, as his or her apolitical status means (s)he owes his/her duties to the House as a whole and not to which the party of which (s)he is formally a member (and indeed there is a Convention that nobody places an opposing candidate against the Speaker of the House in the context of a general election, so that the Speaker may maintain their neutrality without having to fear being voted out of office by the electorate.) No such niceties prevail in the US system, that perceives the blocking minority of one as an extremely powerful procedural tool and this issue has been brought to an apex over the Ukraine aid bill of 2023 / 2024.

The problem arises from the fact that the Republicans have a bare majority in the House (218 to 213 Republican, with four seats vacant) of which 111 / 218 have openly declared their support for Donald Trump as next US President so that is more than half. Given the procedural power of the Speaker, for months there was a wrestle within the Republican Party for whether a more moderate or more hardline (read: Trump-supporting) Republican might be elected Speaker. The problem with this wrestle, which went on for months without resolution, was that if any group of Republicans voted against a Speaker that was not of their political hue then the Democrats would join them in voting down that Speaker. This wrestle went on for a substantial period until the comparatively junior Mike Johnson was elected as Speaker by a sort of Republican consensus coalescing around him, precisely because nobody knew much about him.

Johnson then came under substantial pressure from both branches of the Republican Party to toe their line, and the more hard-line wing of the Republican Party in the House wanted him to delay placing the Ukraine aid bill before the House because they knew that if placed before the House then the bill will pass. Johnson duly succumbed to this sort of pressure for a period, during which time he was accused of being Muscovite, supporting Vladimir Putin, having the support of various Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin, and other such nonsense. None of these things were true; he was just a relatively inexperienced politician selected for his naivety who now found himself in a phenomenally difficult position, as he perceived the next US President Trump (the United States and the world is now coming to terms with this possibility as it becomes ever more stark) as wanting him to hold this funding bill up so that Trump could criticise the Biden administration for doing insufficient to help the Ukrainians.

Cynical as this game might have been, it appears now to be over as Johnson has confirmed as his conscience dictates and is now permitting the Ukraine aid bill to pass to the floor of the House for a vote where it will pass by a solid. Majority consisting of Democrats and a good half, at the least, of the Republican members of the lower House. In fact it may end up that the majority of the Republican members of the House vote for the bill, because nobody wants to look weak on Putin or anything other than supportive of Ukraine in an election year in which it is important for the candidates to project a robust foreign policy as well as to have practical domestic policies. Most members of Congress are after all fighting for their own seats as well as supporting their respective Presidential candidate who formally is elected separately from members of Congress (unlike the British parliamentary system, for example).

This means that the Bill will then return to the Senate for formalities before being passed into law and then the funds Ukraine needs to continue fighting the war against Russia will flow once more as they did before and the various European stopgap measures for funding will no longer need to be relied upon so heavily. The United States will reclaim her role as the World’s Policeman which is necessary to maintain the balance of power against a new despotism and the neo-imperialism of Russia.

Incidentally, the reason it appears that Johnson changed his mind is the following, A handful of Republican Congressmen were threatening with the Democrats to vote him out of office (a bare majority of Representatives voting is all that is needed to remove a Speaker, just as to appoint him) if he let the bill go forward to the floor for a vote and it seems that a handful of centrist Democrat representatives assured him that if such a vote were scheduled then they would break their own party’s whip and vote for Johnson to stay in office. Thereby Johnson was saved by a few maverick members of his opposing party, and this hitherto relatively unknown may have proved his mettle as House Speaker in future battles to come.


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