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For those who have been following the ongoing crisis on Capitol Hill, where the House Republican majority is threatening to force the government to shut down, “the motion to vacate the chair” will be familiar.
A simple standing up may be all it takes to vacate a chair. In the specialized language used in congressional procedure, standing up against the presiding official means that you are challenging the right of the officer to preside. You can do this by threatening the officer to be replaced. The phrase and procedure were used earlier this year during the January melee which led to the appointment of Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The rebels of the House Freedom Caucus refused to let the California Republican, who had been their nominal leader for the past four years, take “the big givel” until they were promised the chance to remove him. Many veterans of Capitol Hill called it “suicide.” No speaker would permit that. McCarthy assured his skeptics, before he won the job on the 15
vote, that they could use the tool as they wanted. Matt Gaetz, a Republican Representative from Florida, said to FOX News’ Chad Pergram that the motion to vacate “was not something we put on a bookcase to admire…we intend to use” it. Gaetz said he will use the motion until it is successful. Gaetz warned earlier that McCarthy’s attempt to introduce a temporary, stopgap measure to prevent a shutdown of the government at the end of this month would be met with a motion for immediate vacature. He said it was a “shot-and-chaser” situation. Such talk was heard all through the session. McCarthy, for example, was in negotiations with Senate leaders and Biden about an increase to the national debt limit. In recent years, lifting the lid was a routine task. However, it became a crisis when some members of the House were willing to hold it hostage as part of negotiations over spending.
McCarthy was able to outmaneuver this group on the debt limit, which had been raised in the spring for two years. The resistance promised to pay back in the fall. McCarthy’s current refusal to support McCarthy leaves him with two options: yield to the hard-core within his party or try to find a way to get at least some votes from Democrats. It was clear that the latter option risked a motion to vacate the chair.
McCarthy thought he had the votes for a stopgap spending measure to keep the government open past Sept. 30. It became clear this week that he didn’t. He met with Gaetz late on Thursday to discuss a possible solution. At the end of last week, online media asked bluntly who is in charge. Politico’s headline on Friday was “How Matt Gaetz Sewed the House.” Speakers have struggled for years to control their most aggressive ideologues, especially when the margin of their majority is narrow. McCarthy’s has a low single-digit margin. The speaker thought that he had rounded up the last strays on a procedural test vote he held this week. When it was time to vote, two previously committed members walked out.
The temptation of adding a few Democrats to reach a majority may seem irresistible, but if he succeeds, it could lead to “shot and chaser”. “Historical roots in party divides and divisive personalitiesA motion to vacate last darkened the horizon in 2015, when House hardliners used it against Speaker John Boehner in another budget stalemate. Boehner became speaker in 2010 with the surge of “Tea Party’ strength by the GOP that regained the majority. Boehner was able to reach this position after years of patience and persistence. But by the fall 2015, he had given up. Boehner resigned when intra-party rivals started talking about leaving the chair. He said he didn’t want to cause the House the same trauma as “a century ago.” “
This was a reference the pivotal House revolt against Speaker Joseph G. Cannon, also known as Joe Uncle Joe and Czar Cannon, in 1910. It is hard to imagine how powerful speakers were in 1910. By the late 1800s, it was so extreme that it could be compared with the absolute power exercised by Russian monarchs for centuries known as the czars. told CNN
After a revolt, in 1910, Republican Illinois Rep. Joseph Cannon lost most of his power as House Speaker.
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
The Maine Republican Thomas Brackett Reed was the first speaker to be attacked as a “czar”. He dominated the chamber like few others before him. Cannon was left a set of parliamentary devices, insider agreements and other tools that would allow him to influence and control the Rules Committee.
Cannon developed “Reed’s Rules”. He could become chairman of the Rules Committee and appoint other committee chairs. He could also decide who would sit on each committee, which bills would come to the floor, the amendments that would be acceptable, who was allowed to make them, or even make a speech. He determined the winner of voice votes, and dictated the schedule. One member was reported to have sent a photo of Joe Cannon in response to a request from the House for a copy.
Cannon wasn’t just using his power to keep the House in order. He used it to make a powerful impact that went beyond Congress, as a tool for defeating any reforms or policy changes he did not like. He often fought with Theodore Roosevelt, and any other member of either party that had progressive ideas. Cannon, despite being affable and popular throughout his career, resisted government regulations of business and supported high tariffs. He also disliked change in general. It was said that had he been present at the Creation he would have voted against it.
Aggressive progressives bring conflict to boiling point
All this reached a boiling point in 1910 when Cannon was in his fourth term as speaker. Roosevelt, who had been out of the White House for two years, was dissatisfied with his successor. He wanted to run again. The progressives were gaining ground in many states. Their presence in both the House and Senate created power bases for men like George W. Norris, of Nebraska, who later served five terms in Senate.
Norris became the Republican’s point of contact for opposing Cannon. Norris was watching as another member in March 1910 asked for permission to introduce a resolution on the 1910 census that wasn’t part of the normal order. He argued that as a Constitution-mandated function, the census was not subject to normal House rules. Cannon agreed.
Norris, spotting an opportunity, pounced. The next day, Norris rose and announced that he had a second resolution based on a constitutional right. Cannon, not knowing what the privilege was, allowed the motion. Norris then presented a new proposal for the Rules Committee. It would no longer be appointed by the Speaker, but instead elected by the entire House. The committee was to have a nearly equal representation of parties and the right to select its own chairperson. Norris’ vision for the new Rules Committee was to explicitly bar the speaker from being its chairman. This was the most direct act of defiance against Cannon. The hall suddenly shook with electricity, writes Alvin M. Josephy Jr. of Congress. “Through newspapers, the entire country witnessed the dramatic drama of the sudden revolt against Cannonism. “
All done but the screaming — and generations’ worth of fallout
The Cannon House Office Building in 2015. The former Speaker was the name of this building in 1962.
Cannon was reelected himself in 1910 but his party lost majority in 1911 and Clark became the speaker. These were the peak years of the so-called Progressive Era, which produced the progressive income tax, voting rights for women and the popular election of senators — among other reforms.
Cannon lost his own seat in the election of 1912, even as Woodrow Wilson was becoming the first new Democrat in the White House since the 1880s. Cannon returned to Illinois in 1914 and was re-elected, serving from 1923. He had been in Washington longer than any other member of Congress at that time. His story was published in a magazine dedicated to national news. The black-and-white drawing of his bewhiskered, sadly wistful face was the first cover story in