McCarthy's fall marks new low in the speakership's declining status

0
127

Kevin McCarthy, the then newly elected Speaker of the House from California, takes up the gavel to begin speaking in the House Chamber on January 7.

Alex Brandon/AP


hide caption

toggle caption

Alex Brandon/AP


Kevin Mccarthy of Calif., the then newly elected Speaker of the House, takes up the gavel to begin speaking in the House Chamber on Jan. 7.1001010

Alex Brandon/AP

The fall of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is surely historic, deserving of both the obsessive media attention and the doleful warnings it has spawned.

Shocking as this week’s vote was, we should have been better prepared for it. It is true that in the history of America, no speaker has ever been removed by a vote from the entire House. It was not a shock, but it could have been. It was possible that we could have predicted it, both in the short and long term. In the immediate future, McCarthy’s days are numbered. The rule change in January, which allowed only one House member the power to force a vote for the removal of the Speaker, was widely reported. This rule is a constant threat to a speaker in an age of narrow partisan majority. But if you look at the bigger picture, the speakership’s status has been declining over the years and perhaps for decades. McCarthy’s removal is an extreme example but is only the latest of a series of events which have made the speaker more vulnerable. The next House Speaker will be the 5th since 2010

.
The Speaker’s Dais in the House of Representatives of the Capitol is visible in Washington. House GOP leaders are scrambling to find a replacement speaker after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster by hard-right conservatives.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

hide caption

toggle caption

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The speaker’s dais can be seen at the Capitol building in Washington. House GOP leaders are scrambling to find a replacement speaker after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster by hard-right conservatives.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The previous four speakerships lasted an average of three years and two months each. The previous four speakers lasted, on average, three years and two month each. Boehner, who became speaker in 2011, tried to resist and negotiate with the Obama administration. He angered his most aggressive partisans and was threatened in 2015 with a “motion for vacating the chair”. This is the same weapon that McCarthy used to remove him this week. Boehner did not force McCarthy to vote on the House Floor to remove him, as McCarthy had done. He resigned and left Congress instead. Ryan had the same issues as Boehner and McCarthy. Ryan also had a difficult time dealing with Donald Trump as both the nominee of the Republican Party in 2016 and as President. Ryan retired from his position as Speaker midway through Trump’s tenure. He had served less than four full years.

If we look back a little further, McCarthy’s short tenure was the latest in an unfortunate series of speaker endings. His predecessors in the job were repudiated by voters, forced out by their colleagues or enveloped in controversy before or after their departures.

The one exception would be the House’s current Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who had two turns at the top, the more recent from January 2019 to the start of this year. Pelosi was speaker during the last two years of George W. Bush and the first two years of Barack Obama. With Obama in the presidency and Democrats controlling the Senate, Pelosi was able to pass the Affordable Care Act and other major legislation.But after shouldering the controversies, she bore the brunt of a 63-seat loss in 2010, the party’s worst drubbing in more than 70 years. She did not, however, retire when she gave up the speakership. She stood for reelection each cycle until, eight years later, Democrats reclaimed the majority.
So she was again speaker in the 117

th

Congress, managing the House that impeached Trump and passed much of President Biden’s program. She then gave back the gavel when her party lost the majority in 2022. She has again refused to retire, and announced her candidacy in 2024 when she will turn 84.


During the unveiling of Hastert’s portrait in the U.S. Capitol, 2009, Nancy Pelosi (then Speaker of the House) and John Boehner (then Minority Leader) applauded Hastert.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

hide caption

toggle caption

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is applauded during the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol by Nancy Pelosi, then the Speaker of the House and John Boehner, then the Minority Leader.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Hastert served as the longest-serving Republican speaker

Just a few years before Pelosi was elected speaker, Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois rose from the middle ranks to the top. Hastert’s speakership was a notable exception to recent trends. Hastert served as speaker for eight years – the longest tenure of any Republican, including the legendary “czars”, from a century ago.

Hastert seemed to have restored the speakership status until the 2006 scandal over the relationship between a junior Republican and male page worsened expected losses for the party in the fall election. The GOP lost its majority and Hastert retired soon thereafter.But after leaving office, Hastert also became the highest-ranking U.S. public official ever to go to jail. Hastert served 15 months in federal prison for paying hush funds to cover up sexual abuse allegations from his time as a high-school teacher and wrestler coach. Other candidates at the time were sidelined by, among other problems, media revelations about marital infidelities.The Republicans needed a new speaker at that time because they had decided not to re-nominate their own leader, Speaker Newt Gingrich, for another term at the top. This highly unusual move was made in a closed door conference held by the Republicans after they suffered unexpected losses in November 1998’s congressional elections.

Hastert was a member of the “whip team”, which measured and encouraged unity within the party. The fact that Hastert had not been involved in an unsuccessful coup d’etat against Gingrich during the summer of 1997 also helped. Other Gingrich lieutenants who had been involved were passed over in the search for a replacement.Going back to Gingrich
Gingrich, a former college professor from Georgia, had been the architect of the party’s “Contract with America” strategy in the 1994 campaign. From his position as the GOP’s number two official, he became its unofficial spokesperson. The Contract strategy was a media-friendly and popular one. The GOP also gained from redistricting, which made Republicans more competitive across the country and especially in the South. The GOP also gained from “buyer’s regret” that voters felt towards Bill Clinton, the first-term president and the legislation his Democrats passed in Congress. Gingrich was installed as the first Republican speaker since the early years of the Dwight Eisenhower administration.

Gingrich’s time in that job proved stormy, however, including government shutdowns that were the longest in history at the time. Gingrich was viewed as being petty for his treatment of Clinton’s disputes, which led to Clinton winning a second term at the White House.

Gingrich was unquestionable amongst his colleagues after the 1994 victories. Gingrich became their Moses after their 40-year journey in the “wilderness”, of minority status. Gingrich was forced out of office by his troops after two turbulent years.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of Ga. works the telephone while peering through the window of his Capitol Hill Office on April 4, 1995.


Joe Marquette/AP

hide caption

toggle caption

Joe Marquette/AP

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of Ga. works the telephone while peering through the window of his Capitol Hill Office on April 4, 1995 in Washington.

Joe Marquette/AP

A pivotal role since the 1980s

Democrats, for their part, relished seeing Gingrich take a hard fall, as he had expended such effort against the previous two speakers. He had criticized Speaker Thomas Foley in 1994, who was a measured and scholarly presence in his job. This was partly because of Foley’s involvement in a suit against a referendum held in Washington, Gingrich’s home state. But Gingrich was already a popular conservative figure in the eyes many conservatives because of his campaign against Foley’s predecessor, Jim Wright of Texas. Wright was a World War II veteran who had climbed the ladder in the House since 1954, eventually becoming Majority Leader and then, in 1987, taking the final step up to the speakership.

Gingrich had already made his name in the chamber as a critic of Congress and of the Democratic majority, alleging widespread and systemic corruption. Gingrich, who had been a critic of Congress and the Democratic majority, filed an ethics complaint when Wright became speaker. The complaint focused on Wright’s book

Reflections Of A Public Man being sold in bulk to different lobbying interests. The House Ethics Committee officially accused Wright in April 1989 of five counts. A month later, he resigned after delivering an emotional speech in the House. Wright, when asked later about his feelings towards Gingrich compared them to “the feelings of a water hydrant toward a dog”. Wright succeeded Thomas P. O’Neill as Speaker, who held the position for 10 years beginning in 1977. O’Neill may have been the last folkloric character to hold the position, and he was the last to hand the ceremonial gavel over to a party member at his convenience. Since then, no one else has held the position for so long and no one else has been able leave the office in the same way.