Few Precedents for a Prolonged Speaker Battle

The Constitution is terse about the election of a new speaker: “The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers . . . .”

It doesn’t address what might happen if the House is unable to choose a speaker, or if there’s a prolonged vacancy.

In the confusion Thursday that followed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s announcement that he was bowing out of the speaker election, Speaker John A. Boehner, R- Ohio, reiterated that he would continue to serve until the House elects a replacement.

Meanwhile, a few members talked about an interim speaker. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said members were floating the idea of a caretaker speaker.

Roe mentioned Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R- Minn., and Administration Committee Chairman Candice S. Miller, R- Mich., both of whom have announced that they would retire from the House after the 2016 elections.

In recent history, one speaker has immediately succeeded another, as in the case of Democrat Jim Wright resigning in 1989 and immediately being replaced by Thomas S. Foley. In the 19th century, one election for speaker dragged on for two months.

At the beginning of the 34th Congress in 1855, it took 133 ballots to elect Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts as speaker, according to a Congressional Research Service report. 

The House historian’s website explains that the North-South conflict over slavery and the rise of the nativist Know-Nothing party caused such factionalism in the chamber that more than 21 members were competing for the speaker’s post.

The House finally chose Banks, a member of both the Know Nothing Party and anti-slavery Free Soil Party, by a vote of 103 to 100 over a Democrat, Rep. William Aiken Jr. of South Carolina.

The CRS report says the last time that multiple ballots were required to elect a speaker was in 1923 when Progressives and some progressive-minded Republicans demanded procedural changes in the House before a new speaker could be chosen.

After the Republican leadership agreed to some reforms, the Progressives backed the Republican candidate, Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, on the ninth ballot, making him the speaker.

Matthew N. Green, a politics professor at Catholic University of America and author of a study of the speakership, said the 1923 speaker’s battle resembles the scenario the House faces now, with many Republicans demanding procedural changes to open the legislative process and to curb top-down decision-making. 

In the 1923 case, Green said, “a faction within the ruling Republican Party (Progressive Republicans) refused to support the party's nominee for speaker on the House floor. After multiple ballots, GOP leaders granted progressives some concessions (most notably, lowering the signature threshold for discharge petitions) in exchange for their votes for speaker,” he said.

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