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Speaker’s election could take multiple ballots

Kevin McCarthy
AP/Jacquelyn Martin
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of Calif., talks to reporters, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

I was a bit taken aback when I read that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the host of CNN’s “State of the Union” that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did not have enough votes to be elected Speaker if Republicans took majority control of the House.   

It’s not that I doubt Pelosi’s shrewd analytical skills as a political prognosticator.  It was more her audacity in publicly reading the other party’s mindset before the final election results were even in. As expected, the following Tuesday McCarthy did win his party’s nomination for Speaker, 188-31, with Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a prominent observatory House Freedom Caucus member, posting a surprisingly strong second-place finish — strong enough to make Pelosi look prescient and McCarthy to look very vulnerable.   

By that weekend, Biggs confirmed in an op-ed in “American Greatness” that he indeed had enough votes to defeat McCarthy for speaker when the 118th Congress convenes on Jan. 3. A majority of those present and voting is required to be elected Speaker. For example, if Republicans hold only 222 seats in the new Congress, McCarthy cannot afford to lose more than four GOP members.   

If no candidate has a majority on the initial vote, the House goes to a second ballot, and on and on. Of the 127 such elections for Speaker since 1789, only 14 have gone to more than one ballot, the most recent in 1923 when Frederick Gillett (R-Mass.) was elected on the ninth ballot (his final of three terms as Speaker).  

The longest election for Speaker occurred in the 34th Congress (December 1855) when balloting for Speaker lasted for two months and 133 ballots were cast before Rep. Nathaniel Banks (American-Mass.), was finally elected from a field of 21 individuals.  

My favorite, though, was a few years later when the House again deadlocked in electing a speaker for the 36th Congress (1860-61). Balloting went on for eight weeks until Rep. William Pennington (R-N.J.) was elected on the 44th ballot.  Most striking was that he was a freshman member, the first freshman to be elected speaker since Rep. Henry Clay (Democratic-Republican-Ky.) in 1811. Pennington, who previously served as governor of New Jersey from 1837 to 1843, was defeated for reelection to the House after just one term.  

It is doubtful the election for House speaker next January will break any of those multi-ballot records set during the turbulent mid-19th century pre- and post- Civil War years as multiple parties came and went. Banks, for instance, was a member of the “American” party (aka the “Know Nothings”) when elected speaker in 1855. Because the speakership was not considered a major center of power in the House for over a century and one-half, most speakers served just one term in that office.  

It is still possible McCarthy will be elected on the first ballot if he acquiesces in most of the concessions being demanded by the conservative wing of the party. And most demands are not unreasonable on their face. Essentially, the Freedom Caucus wants a “return to the regular order” through which individual members can again fully participate in the legislative process both in committees and on the floor.  

They want to ban major legislation coming to the House floor without first going through the committee hearing and markup process, 72-hours advance availability of such bills between committee reporting and floor consideration, and committee chairs elected by committee members rather than appointed by the leadership. And, they want fair representation of their cohorts on the House Rules Committee which sets the terms for floor debate and amendments on major bills. 

Some observers have surmised that McCarthy is not about to cede most of the powers of a party and House leader after having fought hard to win majority control and the nomination for Speaker. Yet, he may have no alternative to making the most of the concessions being demanded. The price of gaining the power of the speakership may have to be a willingness to relinquish a substantial chunk of that power before even taking the oath of office. McCarthy could well end-up being one of the weakest Speakers in over a century.   

In my previous column in this space (Nov. 1), I lamented that the metaphorical pendulum is no longer swinging back and forth between committee and leadership governance every few years. Instead that the House is frozen in hyper-partisan warfare and gridlock, with neither party willing to cooperate with the other to get things done for the nation.  

A return to the regular order, though fanciful and appealing, is not a realistic option given today’s toxic politics. Attempts to go back to the “good old days” (that never were), would be a fascinating experiment to observe, but would only end with new powers being asserted from some source to pull things back together — whether through the party caucus or a party leader (other than the Speaker).   

A power failure will only result in chaos leading to anarchy.  The staid and solid old grandfather clock, with its swinging pendulum, could well end-up resembling more a cuckoo-clock.      

Don Wolfensberger is a Congress Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own. 

Tags Andy Biggs House speaker vote Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi

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