Electing a Speaker

It took two months in the 34th Congress to find somebody who had enough votes to be Speaker.

The Whig Party had collapsed a half decade before the Civil War started, and no party had enough votes to claim a majority. The newly formed Republican Party competed with the Know-Nothings and the Democrats, but the issue of slavery made it hard for any coalition to find a compromise candidate.

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Eventually, a Know-Nothing from Massachusetts, Nathaniel Banks, emerged with enough votes to secure the chair. Four years later, the Speaker’s position again remain unfilled for several months, until William Pennington, who had once been a Whig but who during the Speaker’s election declared he had no partisan loyalties, got the job. Of course, a few months later, many of those anti-abolition Democrats decided to start up their own Congress, making it far easier for the anti-slavery forces to have the run of the House.

As America was getting ready to enter the First World War, the House once again couldn’t come up with a clear consensus about what to do with its Speaker. The Progressives, who had rebelled under the Iron Joe Cannon, didn’t want to vote for the Republican’s candidate, and eventually decided to allow Champ Clark, a Democrat, to stay on as Speaker.

After the market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, the country was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats in the election of the Speaker in 1931, 217-217. The Farmer-Labor Party, which held the balance of power in its hands, eventually gave the job to John Nance Garner, who would soon become FDR’s vice president. Garner memorably compared his new job (as VP) to a warm bucket of piss.

Sam Rayburn gave the Speaker’s Office stability once he assumed the office in 1940, and for the next 55 years or so, electing a Speaker was fairly routine.

And then came Newt Gingrich.

The fiery Georgia Republican helped to engineer the Republican take-over of 1994, the first time in four decades that House Republicans were given the keys to car. Gingrich proved to be an unsteady driver, though, and by his second term, moderates like Jim Leach were already voting for alternatives to the Newtster. (Leach nominated former Minority Leader Bob Michel in the Speaker’s election of 1996).

Conservatives didn’t particularly like Newt either. They conspired with some of the Speaker’s lieutenants, included House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, to see if they could topple the Speaker in a coup.

What they couldn’t figure out was who they would replace him with, and eventually the coup fizzled out. That event turned out to be a harbinger, as Gingrich decided to quit after the elections of 1998 turned out to be less than stellar. Apparently impeaching a president for having an affair with a younger staff member while having an affair with a younger staff member is not politically the safest approach to keeping your job as Speaker.

After Newt left the stage, my old boss, Denny Hastert, took the reigns, and for more than half a decade, normalcy returned. Hastert never had to worry if he had the votes to be Speaker and there were no coups or dissenters, at least on the first day of Congress.

With Nancy Pelosi’s accession came more tumult, this time on the Democratic side of the ledger. Conservative Democrats (the few that were left) couldn’t stomach the liberal Pelosi, and a few voted against her for Speaker (most notably Mississippi Democrat Gene Taylor).

John Boehner may or may not have some who vote against him for Speaker. That wouldn’t be that surprising, given what the country and the Republican Party have gone through over the last four years. The animosity between Tea Party Republicans and so-called establishment Republicans is real and growing. But the Tea Party doesn’t have a Plan B, and Boehner has done a very good job under very difficult circumstances.

It is usually the case that when the country faces its biggest challenges (the Civil War, the First World War, the Great Depression, the end of the Cold War), the job of Speaker becomes ever more difficult to get and to hold. That fact makes you appreciate how extraordinary a Speaker Sam Rayburn was for all of those years, and how hard a job Boehner has today.

It is hard to be Speaker of the House when the country is sharply divided on what it wants its government to do.



Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.