April 22, 2023

The Fight for Speaker of the House (Listener Request)

The Fight for Speaker of the House (Listener Request)

Earlier this year, many watched as California Representative Kevin McCarthy waited out multiple ballots to secure his position as Speaker of the House. The week-long series of votes led many to wonder what was happening and whether there was any historical precedent for this.

In fact, so many of you reached out to ask about this and request I do an episode covering it that I felt duty bound to push this to the front of the line. So join me as I talk about what the House of Representatives are, why there was so much attention given to the votes, and what happened in prior battles for Speaker.

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Balcerski, Thomas. “Opinion: Kevin McCarthy is getting a humiliating history lesson.” CNN. January 4, 2023. (LINK)

Elving, Ron. “The House last struggled to elect a speaker 100 years ago. Here’s what happened.” NPR. January 5, 2023. (LINK)

Freeman, Joanne. “Opinion: It’ Tempting to Laugh at Kevin McCarthy’s Struggles, but History Shows That This Type of Chaos Is Not a Joke.”The New York Times. January 7, 2023. (LINK)

“Speaker Elections Decided by Multiple Ballots.” The United States House of Representatives: History, Art, and Arches. (LINK)

“The House Explained.” The United States House of Representatives. (LINK)

“The Speaker Inquisition of 1856.” Whereas: Stories from the People’s House. The United States House of Representatives: History, Art, and Archives. October 23, 2015. (LINK)

“U.S. House of Representatives.” The Policy Circle. (LINK)


Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 



Hey everyone, welcome back. 


Earlier this year, the United States was caught in a bit of political stalemate as the 118th Congress struggled through a series of votes on who would lead the chamber to become the Speaker of the House. 


I think even the most casual of news watchers likely tuned into the story and I am sure many wondered, what the heck is going on and why does this matter? As a history nerd, I monitored the news closely, tracking the interpretations and thoughts of some of my favorite presidential and political historians to get a sense of just how big the political fight might be. 


Finally, after multiple days and 15 rounds of voting, California Representative Kevin McCarthy succeeded in becoming the Speaker of the House. 


While the drama unfolded, more than a few of you reached out and asked about what was going on, if there was any precedent to this, and whether I would do an episode covering it. The demand was so overwhelming that I decided to go ahead and bump up this special episode request and dive into it. 


So this week, I am diving into the historic battles for the Speaker of the House. What does the Speaker do? Why did previous votes take so long? And why in the heck does it matter anyway? 


Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this. 


Before we dive into the contentious speaker votes of yore, let’s do a level set and review exactly what the House of Representatives is and what role it plays in the federal government. The House conducts its business on the south side of the capitol building, their base of operations since they moved into the still unfinished wing in 1807. 


As outlined in article one of the United States Constitution, quote: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives,” end quote. But what does that actually mean? 


The House is responsible for several key pieces of the legislative process: impeachment of federal officers including the president, and deciding presidential elections when no candidate reaches the required number of electoral votes and taxes. Impeachment is a fairly uncommon occurrence, despite recent history, and can be for any federal official - not just the president. As for deciding a presidential election, the last time it was left up to the House of Representatives was back in 1824 - again not an overly common duty required of house members. Their biggest, and most impactful, power lies with their ability to levy taxes, commonly referred to as the power of the purse. Article one, section seven of the constitution specifies that any bill that quote “raises revenue” shall originate in the house. 


But because we have a bicameral congress - or two chambers - the house also plays a significant role in proposing and passing federal legislation. While either chamber may introduce a bill, both the house of representatives and the senate must vote to approve the same version before it can go to the president’s desk for signature or veto. To round out our civics lesson, the house is made up of 435 members and is distributed based on each state’s population, which is gathered from the results of the census taken every ten years. 


Representatives in the house serve for only two-year terms whereas Senators serve six-year terms. The election of the house marks the beginning of a new congress since, in theory, every house member could be replaced after a two-year term. At the start of the new congressional session, before any legislative business can begin, the house must choose a leader - or speaker - to serve as the presiding officer. The Speaker of the House is also second in line to the presidency, behind the Vice President. 


House rules dictate that before any legislative business can begin, a speaker must be chosen. This means no new members are sworn in; no new bills can be introduced; no legislation is voted on. Everything is on hold until there is an agreed-upon leader. This is, in part, why there was so much focus on the prolonged vote for the speakership in January. The federal government is basically at a standstill until there is leadership. 


The first speaker of the house was Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania who had two stints as speaker, serving in the first Congress from 1789 to 1791 and the third congress from 1793 to 1795. Staying on theme with my recent episodes about the former president, James K Polk was the first former speaker to be elected as the commander in chief and of course, Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to hold the gavel when she won the vote in 2007. By and large, the votes over the Speaker of the House are fairly routine and without much drama as the speaker only needs to earn a majority of the votes in the chamber to win their seat. When a new house is elected there is a majority and a minority based on whose party secured the most votes and before the House vote on the speaker happens, the parties hold closed-door meetings to identify their candidate. Thus, by the time they enter the chamber, the public vote is almost a foregone conclusion. 


Where things can go off the rails is once everyone is inside the chamber. After a sufficient number of member-elects are present, also referred to as a quorum, the vote is held by viva voce - or voice vote and those present have three options: vote for a candidate, abstain from the vote, or vote “present.” Voting “present” reduces the total number of votes needed for the Speaker. Before 1839, votes for the speaker were held by a secret ballot. This practice was discontinued due to the growing animosity and sectional tensions of the fight for slavery. I do wonder if McCarthy would have had a different experience if his ballot would have been conducted in secret, without anyone showing off for the cameras. But, regardless, because each member has a voice vote, a break from the rank could create issues, depending on the level of support and size of the majority. 


Throughout our history, there have been 15 instances where the speaker of the house was not decided on the first ballot - all but two of those extended ballots occurring in the run-up to the Civil War. In the republic’s earliest days, attachment to a party was fluid, as I’ve explored in prior episodes on the former president John Tyler. In the run-up to the Civil War, however, things became quite contentious in Congress and this impacted the House vote. A portion of the multiple-ballot speaker contests was resolved after only a few votes, but there were a total of nine separate instances where the vote extended past three ballots. 


The longest fight over the vote for speaker occurred in 1855 and was the result of sectional, not party, loyalties. As the nation grappled with what to do about slavery, coalitions began forming along northern and southern lines. Being a Democrat or Whig meant very little; instead, it was all about a representative’s views on that peculiar institution. This led to a fracturing of the parties and when the votes were tallied for the house election, no party held a majority. The Whigs were on their last legs as a political party, and Democrats were split over the issue of slavery, paving the way for a third party to gain a few votes. So, as a result, despite the dominance of two parties for decades, suddenly there were Democrats, Whigs, Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, and a small block of individuals identifying as Republicans.


Because no one party held a majority, there was uncertainty as to who would be elevated to the Speaker’s chair. In their analysis of the chaos to come in D.C., the New York Daily Tribune wrote quote, “The Speakership, so far, is all in doubt, there being no satisfactory indication of the result,” end quote. Oh, how right they would prove to be. This all came to a head on the first day of the congressional session when, on December 3rd, 1855 the newly elected members of the house gathered to begin the business of the nation. The first ballot for speaker elicited twenty-one different nominees for the role, with no one man securing a sufficient number of votes. In her analysis of the 1855 vote for Speaker, historian Joanne Freeman wrote in the New York Times this delayed fight was due to, in part, quote, “fractured party politics. Finding one candidate who satisfied the many voting blocs was near impossible, and on the unyielding question of slavery, compromise was difficult, if not impossible,” end quote. 


The ballots continued - multiple votes per day - in a political version of the 90s comedy Groundhog’s Day - with the same result every day. There were over 80 ballots held in December alone, each resulting without enough votes to secure a speaker. As the new year dawned and the contest continued to be stuck in a stalemate, another representative in the chamber, Felix Zollicoffer of Tennessee, suggested the three men who had the most votes thus far share their feelings about slavery. These answers, he hoped, would help break the impasse, and lead to a speaker selection. 


The candidates had to answer three major questions: did the constitution allow for the spread of slavery into territories and provide for its protection once established, did the Kansas-Nebraska Act support creating free states, and was the Wilmot Proviso - an 1846 proposal to ban the expansion of slavery into the west - constitutional? Despite this marathon of inquiry, the house was still no closer to deciding on a speaker. Desperate over the ongoing delays, the house even altered the rules, lowering the threshold required to become speaker from a majority to a plurality of the votes cast. Finally, nearly two months after the house first convened, and after 132 ballots, compromise candidate Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts secured the speaker’s chair with 103 votes. 


Banks, who initially won election to the house two years prior, was a former journalist and eventual lawyer, and was a member of the American Party - otherwise referred to as the Know Nothing party. Upon his selection, Banks said quote, “It would afford me far greater pleasure in taking the chair of the House, were I supported even by the self-assurance that I could bring to the discharge of its duties—always arduous and delicate, and now environed with unusual difficulties—any capacity commensurate with their responsibility and dignity,” end quote. 


But after the Civil War tore the nation apart, party loyalty was reaffirmed and as such, nearly every vote for speaker of the house thereafter was an uneventful affair, ending after a single vote. The one exception, before this past January, was one hundred years ago in 1923 when Frederick H Gillett of Massachusetts had to wait through nine ballots for his selection as Speaker of the House. Much like the most recent battle of house leadership, Gillett was a republican during a tense period as the country was reeling from a significant recession, and only a few years removed from World War I. Republican President Warren G Harding enjoyed a party majority in both houses of Congress and, despite maintaining a slight edge in the midterms, watched as his party had one of the worst rebuffs of a political party in history as Republicans lost 75 seats in the house. 


Gillett was a seasoned member of the house, on his 15th term in the chamber. Due to the congressional calendar of the time, the first session of the new congress was still in December - something that was finally changed to January 3rd in 1933 as part of the twentieth amendment to the constitution. Much like in 1855, the opening ballot for a Speaker produced no clear winner as Gillett earned only 197 votes - less than Kevin McCarthy in his first vote. The Democrat Finis J Garrett of Tennessee received 195 votes, thus neither candidate received the requisite 208 votes and members went back to the drawing board. After the eighth vote, Gillett held a closed-door meeting with the rebellious members of his party, granting several concessions to gain their support. His negotiations were successful and he secured the speakership on the 9th ballot, held on December 5th, just a two-day delay. 


Since then, every single ballot for Speaker of the House has ended in a single ballot. That was, of course, until Kevin McCarthy’s bid this year. For those who may ignore the political infighting ever present in our nation’s capitol, it took McCarthy 15 ballots and a week to quote un quote secure his seat. I say that because to break the stalemate and convince those who opposed him to switch their vote, McCarthy agreed to, among other concessions, a change to the rule for removing the speaker. This rule, known as the motion to vacate the chair, typically required a coalition of members of the house. Now, under the agreed rules of the 118th Congress, a single member of the chamber may trigger a vote - meaning McCarthy’s job is, in theory, on the line every single day. 


What comes next is anybody’s guess. As a tax-paying citizen who also happens to be a history nerd and holds a passing interest in politics, I hope that this Congress manages to get its acts together and come up with some legislative solutions for the variety of issues facing the country. 


Thank you to all of you who reached out, tweeted, or otherwise asked about this topic. This was, like usual, a fascinating episode to put together and I so enjoy the requests you all come up with. I hope this overview has hit the mark for all my listeners out there. Be sure to tune in next week when I dive into yet another special topic. It is my birthday and I decided to share the history of a place that holds wonderful memories for me in celebration. 


As always, if you ever have a topic you want me to discuss, please let me know. I have quite the list to get through, but I love fielding new requests too. You can find me on all of the social media and of course, through my website at www dot civics and coffee dot com. The website is also where you can find source material, transcripts, and other ways you can support the show. 


Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.


Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.