The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 400-pound gavel? The story of a symbol of congressional power and its heavy-handed abusers.

After Nancy Pelosi was elected House speaker Thursday, she was given a wooden mallet with a colorful history of being shattered.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she would bring forward legislation to reopen the government on Jan. 3. (Video: U.S. House)

When Nancy Pelosi became House speaker for the second time Thursday, her new power was symbolized by the gavel handed to her by the new minority leader.

In transferring the gavel — a mallet made of lacquered maple — the Republicans let go of one the oldest symbols of legislative power in Washington.

“In the speakership,” said Sam Rayburn, the Texas Democrat who held the office longer than anyone else, "the gavel becomes almost part of the office. It’s habit. Any gavel you use has a lot of sentiment attached.”

That is, until it is shattered.

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Throughout American history, speakers have pounded their gavels so hard in search of order that — metaphor alert! — they wind up smashing the gavel itself into smithereens.

This is not the fault of the House carpentry shop, whose workers have diligently and expertly produced the mallets for decades, but rather a legislative process that often veered out of control in a world before microphones.

“Without sound amplification, the speakers really had to pretty insistently rap that gavel to bring the House to attention,” Matthew Wasniewski, the House historian, said in an interview.

It is not known exactly how many speakers have shattered their gavels throughout history, but two speakers are notable for their mallet mauling.

One is Joseph Cannon, the Illinois Republican whose last name adorns the oldest congressional office building in Washington. The following anecdote doesn’t begin with “legend has it” because the following anecdote actually happened.

On June 22, 1906, Speaker Cannon was trying to push members toward considering a bill when, according to the House historian, he “banged the gavel hard enough to knock off the head, which landed between the clerks on the lower tier of the rostrum.”

No clerks were injured.

The unassuming Texan who ran the House longer than anyone else

And then there was John Nance Garner, a gavel breaker of extraordinary distinction.

Upon taking over as speaker in 1931, the Texas Democrat broke not one but three gavels in his first week, including one the day he was sworn in. Garner devised his own solution.

“He demanded that he have an unbreakable gavel so he used one that was made of walnut,” Wasniewski said.

But Garner’s constituents were apparently not certain that would do the trick. Taking matters into their own hands, they mailed him a 400-pound gavel made of mesquite wood. The head of the gavel was so large that one of Garner’s aides sat on it as though it were a stool.

This is American history, people — really.

The number of broken gavels began to dwindle in the late 1930s with the introduction of amplification systems in Congress. Speakers no longer had to bring the House to order by banging the gavel with the force of a jackhammer.

Still, there have been sporadic gavel disturbances in the age of amplification.

A fanatic and 'Negro-stealer’: One of the ugliest House speaker fights in history

In 1995, Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California, was particularly exercised about

“fat cat lobbyists” in Washington, getting louder and louder on the House floor. C-Span captured the drama as it unfolded. Rep. Bob Walker, a Republican from Pennsylvania, was presiding over the House that day.

"The time of the gentleman has expired," Walker said.

He banged the gavel.

"The time of the gentleman has expired," Walker said again.

He banged the gavel again, harder. So hard, in fact, that it flew out of his hand. Miller kept ranting.

Meanwhile, a clerk rushed to find the gavel, picked it up, then handed it back to Walker, who proceeded to hit it again and again — only softer.

Eventually, the House came to order.

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