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The House last struggled to elect a speaker 100 years ago. Here's what happened

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is flanked by Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., left, and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., right, in the House chamber as lawmakers meet for a second day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress.
Alex Brandon
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AP
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is flanked by Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., left, and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., right, in the House chamber as lawmakers meet for a second day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress.

If you heard it once this week you probably heard it a hundred times: The House has not failed to elect a speaker on the first ballot in 100 years.

For generations it was the definition of party loyalty for every member of each party to vote for its nominee for speaker. In fact for 50 years after World War II, not a single stray vote was cast for anyone other than the two major party nominees.

On several occasions since 1997, we have seen a few members of the majority party voting "present" or voting for someone other than their party nominee. But it has not prevented that nominee's election as speaker.

But beginning with the first ballot for speaker on Tuesday, at least 19 Republicans voted for someone other than their party nominee, Kevin McCarthy of California. That meant McCarthy did not have enough votes to be speaker, and neither did anyone else.

For Congress watchers, this telegraphs that something is historically amiss on Capitol Hill, or at least within the party running one of its chambers. And that was certainly the message from the House the last time it had this much trouble electing a speaker – a long and eventful century ago.

Still, a distant mirror can show us things, and even across 10 decades of profound change, there are parallels between this week's meltdown at the outset of the 118th Congress and the fiasco that occurred in the 68th.

Then, as now, the party with the House majority was the Republican Party. Both times, the party's nominee for speaker was someone who had been in the job or in line for the job for several years.

But in both cases, the results of the latest November elections had been somewhere between disappointing and devastating, leaving the party clinging to majority control. That created anxiety and aggravated long-festering internal disputes over rules and procedures, including the powers of individual committee chairs.

As a result, a restive faction within the party was in rebellion and ready to take it out on the party's nominee for speaker.

This week, the target was McCarthy.

In 1923, it was Frederick H. Gillett of Massachusetts.

In neither case had the nominee himself been especially controversial. Each had risen through the ranks, a survivor of earlier leadership upheavals, generally compatible with the party's broad rank and file.

But having reached the top of the leadership ladder, these men represented a party establishment regarded with hostility by a potent faction of the party. They became the embodiment of that faction's grievances.

Here's how things unfolded for Gillett

Gillett was a 72-year-old Boston Brahmin with a Harvard law degree who was serving his 15th term in the House. He had first grasped the big gavel years earlier, after Republicans seized the House majority in the 1918 midterms the month World War I ended.

Speaker of the House Frederick H. Gillett ca. between 1918 and 1920.
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UIG via Getty Images
Speaker of the House Frederick H. Gillett ca. between 1918 and 1920.

Two years after that, Gillett's party rode to a huge majority on the same postwar wave that swept Warren G. Harding into the White House in 1920. The party of Lincoln was gaining ground in most of the country and beginning a decade of Washington domination in the White House and Congress alike.

But the brief era of the Harding administration stalled the party's momentum. The economy was still recovering from its postwar recession and labor unrest was widespread, including major strikes by coal miners and railroad workers.

The House had also brought criticism on itself in 1921 and 1922 by refusing to accept the official U.S. Census of 1920. That renewal of the decennial study documented how immigration had exploded and, for the first time, more Americans were living in urban areas than rural.

These controversies, coupled with the typical swing of the midterm political mood led to Harding's GOP losing 75 House seats and a net of 6 Senate seats in 1922. It was a worse shellacking than Barack Obama or any other president of the past four decades would experience in his first midterm.

The 68th Congress was officially in office as of March 1923, but under the congressional schedule still in use at that time, it did not convene its first session until late that fall. In the meantime, Harding died in August and was succeeded by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge. The vote for speaker finally commenced on December 5. (The current schedule, with a January 3 starting date, was adopted as part of the 20th Amendment in 1933.)

Gillett's majority in 1923 was barely larger than Republicans have now, and he found it difficult to corral the factions within his party. He got just 197 votes on the first ballot, even fewer than McCarthy got in his first test this week.

On that first ballot, the Democratic nominee Finis J. Garrett of Tennessee got 195 votes and two other Republicans got a total of 23. But the key obstacle for Gillett was a bloc of his party members who called themselves "progressives," the term used by Theodore Roosevelt in his third-party "Bull Moose" bid for president in 1912.

Seventeen House members who identified as progressives (The New York Times called them "radical progressives") would cast their first-round speaker votes for Henry A. Cooper of Wisconsin. Cooper was a former prosecuting attorney from Racine who represented southeastern Wisconsin from 1893 to 1919 and again from 1921 until his death in 1931. Over his long career, Cooper only lost once, paying a price in 1918 for having opposed U.S. entry into World War I.

Cooper, whose parents had operated a station on the Underground Railroad by which escaped slaves reached freedom, was a longtime ally of Wisconsin's legendary progressive governor and Sen. Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette. When Cooper was opposing Gillett in the House, LaFollette was conducting a smaller-scale revolt against the GOP leaders in the Senate.

Ultimately, however, Gillett survived. Although the voting continued for days, no clear alternative emerged with any chance of getting a majority. In the end, he was able to win over the Cooper voters with the help of his No. 2 leader, Nicholas Longworth of Ohio. Widely viewed as Gillett's heir apparent, Longworth was able to convince enough of the progressives that there would in fact be procedural reforms.

Getting Gillett over the finish line took a total of nine ballots, and in the end some of Cooper's backers simply voted "present." The speaker was reelected with just 215 votes. (That was a majority because by then only 414 members were present and voting for a name.)

There were those this week who suggested this might be a model for McCarthy's strategy as well: Vote, wait, vote again, repeat. Over many votes and ballots, some of the less zealous members might drift away as the hour grew late or the weekend grew near.

Here's what has usually happened

Whichever party holds the majority on the House side of the Capitol typically elects its leader as the speaker on the first day of the new Congress. Each party nominates its leader and the majority has the most votes and prevails, even if a few members of the majority party defect or vote "present" or just don't show up.

There really isn't any alternative. Without a speaker officially in place, the House cannot even swear in its members, let alone do any other business.

That's why the rejection of McCarthy on the first ballot and beyond was such riveting news. It left open the job that stands second in the line of presidential succession (right after the vice president). It left undone the swearing in of the new House. And it left hanging the direction of the newly elected House Republican majority in the 118th Congress.

For some of McCarthy's critics, a major motivation has been the decentralization of authority in the chamber. They want less reliance on the leadership and more empowerment of the committee chairs.

They also wanted a rule change that would facilitate the use of a rather obscure item of House floor procedure known as "a motion to vacate the chair." That provision allows a sufficient number of members to demand a vote on the presiding officer, a threat to replace the speaker.

McCarthy had resisted this as it would essentially put his job on the line on a daily, even hourly, basis. But in his last rounds of attempting to secure votes, he was reported to have given in even on this issue.

The motion to vacate the chair was famously used to take down the autocratic Republican Speaker Joe Cannon of Illinois (the "last of the czars") in 1910. Cannon had and abused absolute power over committee chairs and assignments, floor procedure and rules for debate. No one since has had anything akin to this level of authority.

At the height of his power, Cannon not only chose all the committee chairs, he chose all the members of all the committees. He was chairman of the Rules Committee and he determined which bills and amendments would be allowed on the floor and which members would be permitted to speak.

One inquiring constituent who asked a member for a copy of the House rules in that era was said to have received an envelope that contained only a picture of Joe Cannon.

When Cannon's high-handed practices had become intolerable, a coalition of Democratic members and Republican progressives put together the bipartisan majority needed to "vacate the chair." Cannon remained Speaker but lost most of his powers.

Defeated in the 1912 election, he returned two years later and served several additional terms as a rank and file member. On his last day in office he was featured on the cover of the first issue of the new Time Magazine (March 3, 1923).

The first official building housing the offices of House members was opened in 1908 and called the House Office Building. Later it was called the Old House Building. In 1962, it was named for Cannon. It stands as a monument both to the preeminence of the speakership and the impermanence of power.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.