There used to be a radio-TV series called “The Life of Riley,” in which the lead character, Chester A. Riley (played by William Bendix), would cry out in each episode, “What a revoltin’ development this is.” It always produced uproarious laughter from the (canned?) studio audience.
The House Republican Conference on the other hand, which has a history of revolting developments, isn’t exactly rolling in the aisles (let alone across the aisle) over its latest internal eruptions culminating in the resignation of Speaker John A. Boehner, effective at the end of this month (or when a successor is chosen). Party leadership shakeups are unsettling enough at the beginning of a Congress, but can be downright disruptive when they occur mid-session.
Republican Speaker Joe Cannon of Illinois faced a mid-session revolt against his leadership in March 1910, when a group of 42 “insurgent” Republicans joined with Democrats to change House rules from the floor to remove Cannon as chairman and member of the Rules Committee and abolish his authority to appoint its members.
Cannon responded to the vote by inviting a motion by any member to vacate the office of the speakership because, in his words, “the Democratic majority, aided by a number of so-called insurgents ... is now in the majority.” Democratic Rep. Albert Burleson of Texas obliged with the requisite motion. But most insurgent Republicans returned to the party fold on the vote rather than risk a Democratic speaker. Nonetheless, Republicans lost control of the House in the 1910 elections, in part over the issue of “Cannonism” or “Czar Speaker.”
The revolts against Republican leaders continued later in the century. In 1959, Rep. Charles Halleck of Indiana defeated former House Speaker Joe Martin of Massachusetts as Republican leader. In 1965, Rep. Gerald R. Ford of Michigan did the same to Halleck. Arizona Rep. John Rhodes, who replaced Ford as minority leader when Ford became vice president in 1973, stepped aside in 1980 rather than risk defeat by Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois.
In 1994, Michel in turn retired rather than face inevitable defeat as minority leader by GOP Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Gingrich was elected speaker in 1995, and, just two years later, squelched a mini-revolt from within this own leadership ranks. But by 1998, he was forced to retire rather than lose his speakership to a more broad-based uprising within his conference.
If there is a common thread running through these turnovers, it is that House Republicans are an impatient bunch, willing to risk the turbulence and trauma involved when they think new directions are required. I have no doubt Boehner would have survived a floor vote to oust him, but I commend him for his selfless act. Boehner is an institutionalist as well as a party loyalist, and he saw his continued presence as potentially tearing apart his party and the House.
Boehner’s attempt to resolve the succession issue early was thwarted by a minority of the majority who threatened to vote against the Republican nominee for speaker in the House if it wasn’t someone of their choosing. Such a floor vote revolt would blatantly violate an unwritten caucus rule that members are informally bound to support their party’s nominee for speaker. The prospect of an internecine floor war was enough to cause Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California to withdraw from the speaker’s race.
Some of the same insurgents wanted to leverage the moment to force immediate changes in GOP conference rules. Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington responded to their entreaties by announcing creation of a conference-policy committee “working group” aimed at “changing our rules and power structure” in a way that “makes our institution stronger.” Her approach follows a Republican Conference tradition of congressional reform task forces dating back to the mid-1960s. Those task force efforts helped rally and energize party members and culminated in the 1995 Republican House takeover and adoption of the Contract with America’s House reform agenda. Today they may help determine whether the majority party deserves to remain in power.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a congressional fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.
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