The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The last time a House speaker wasn’t elected on the first ballot

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), right, talks to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) as members of the House cast their votes for speaker on the first day of the 118th Congress. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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There have been 435 voting members of Congress since 1913, and in all that time, only twice has a speaker of the House not been elected on the first ballot.

One of those times occurred Tuesday, when Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) failed in the first two rounds of balloting to get the votes needed to be speaker. More than a dozen hard-right members of his own party did not vote for him.

McCarthy fails to win House speakership on second ballot

The other took place 100 years ago, in 1923. The November 1922 election had been worrying for Republicans. They lost 77 House seats, and their margin over Democratic members shrank from 171 to just 18. In his book “Horses in Midstream: U.S. Midterm Elections and Their Consequences,” historian Andrew E. Busch noted that most of the ousted Republicans were allies of President Warren G. Harding. The progressive wing of the GOP took their ouster as a win for its camp.

Back then, the new Congress wasn’t sworn in until March 1923, and it didn’t meet for its first session until December 1923, meaning 13 months had passed between the election and the vote for a new speaker. In that time, Harding died suddenly and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, assumed the presidency.

Thus the stage was set for an intraparty drama.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the first vote for speaker looked like this: 197 votes for incumbent Frederick Gillett (R-Mass.), 195 votes for Rep. Finis Garrett (D-Tenn.), 17 votes for Rep. Henry Cooper (R-Wis.), five votes for Rep. Martin Madden (R-Ill.) and four members voting “present.”

When the House needed two months and 133 votes to elect a speaker

The votes for Cooper and Madden came from Republicans whom The Washington Post referred to as “La Follette insurgents,” after progressive GOP Sen. Robert La Follette (Wis.), whom they would support for president the next year.

Little changed on the second ballot. Madden went up to six votes, and five fewer members voted altogether. Two more ballots that day yielded similar results. That evening, the leader of the insurgents, Rep. John Nelson (R-Wis.), released a statement saying they would continue to delay the election of a speaker until mainline Republicans “gave assurances that there would be an opportunity to discuss liberalization of the House rules.” (Reminder: Until the party realignment in the mid-20th century, Republicans were considered more progressive and Democrats more conservative.)

The next day, Dec. 4, was a repeat: Four rounds of voting, with the 17 members voting for Cooper and five members voting for Madden holding firm. Coolidge had been scheduled to make a major address as soon as the new Congress was seated; it had now been delayed for two days, The Post reported.

That night, House Majority Leader Nicholas Longworth (R-Ohio) held an emergency meeting with the insurgents, assuring them that any changes to House rules that they proposed would be given a fair hearing.

Issues resolved, the next day went smoothly. A ninth and final vote yielded the 215 votes Gillett needed to remain speaker.