John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan are not the only speakers of the House to have trouble with their charges, but they are the only ones in recent history to voluntarily give up the office over intraparty strife, though Ryan has cited family reasons for retiring.
The voluntary recusal of two successive speakers suggests that Boehner and Ryan found the role far more constraining — and far less powerful — than they expected. Their decisions to step down may mean that we’re entering a new era of low-power speakers. Instead of one person being the uncontested leader of the House, it may revert to a diffuse power structure with committee chairmen retaining considerable power over legislation and processes.
The power of the speaker has ebbed and flowed over the years. The early 1900s witnessed perhaps the most powerful speaker of all time: Joseph Cannon (R-Ill.). Not only was he speaker, but he also chaired the House Rules Committee. From his dual positions, he could pick which legislation made it to the floor (and under what rules) and controlled all committee assignments.
He used his power to stifle the Progressive impulse that had taken over half of his conference in the years before those Progressives, led by former president Theodore Roosevelt, bolted from the party altogether. Popular legislation was bottled up, choking off the opportunity for many members to get anything done.
In a move to break the power of Uncle Joe (despite his actions, he was personally well-liked), Republicans teamed up with Democrats in a surprise move to remove the speaker from the Rules Committee and limit his other powers. Although in the end Cannon did not lose his position as speaker, these changes fundamentally transformed the office. It would be nearly a century before a speaker again wielded that kind of power.
In the mid-20th century, power in the House resided not in the speakership but in committee chairs. But they, too, began to abuse their power. As a new generation of more diverse legislators arrived in Washington after the Watergate scandal, they found their reform legislation bottled up by older, Southern Democratic white men who, by virtue of seniority, controlled the committees. These new legislators teamed up to overturn the committee system, forcing chairmen to interview for their jobs and dismantling the seniority system.
The speakership thus became a powerful position once again. But it became something else, too: a target for dissatisfied members. No one better exemplified the speakership’s new dual nature more than Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who, during the 100th Congress, took full advantage of the new powers that the speaker had accrued, limiting debate and forcing through legislation — something he did without the charm of his predecessor, Tip O’Neill.
Frustrated with Wright’s tactics and spoiling for a fight, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) began attacking the speaker over supposed ethics violations. The ethics case, which constantly changed shape and issue, in the end focused on royalties that Wright received for a book he had written. Gingrich’s tactics did more than expose Wright to scandal — they helped provoke a revolt among Democrats who were also chafing under Wright’s imperious rule. With rank-and-file members starting to flee his ranks, Wright resigned from the House, a victim of a mutiny.
Only a few years later, the Republicans captured the majority in the House for the first time in nearly half a century. They elected Gingrich to lead them as speaker, a fitting reward for the man who had led the attack against Wright. But Gingrich ran into the same problems as Wright. Republican members expected a powerful leader, but they quickly concluded he was a poor tactician in dealing with President Bill Clinton and the Democrats.
Fearing that Gingrich had become an impediment to their maintaining power, especially after he pushed to impeach Clinton despite polling that indicated the public didn’t support the move, other members of the GOP leadership did little to defend Gingrich from his own ethics probe, one that, ironically, also dealt with book royalties. Like Wright, Gingrich resigned after his scandals, and Republican losses in the 1998 midterm cost him support from his own party.
Something has changed, at least in the Republican caucus, since the days of Wright and Gingrich.
Empowered by new tools that boost members who wish to defy leadership — from strident ideological interest groups to a plethora of ideological media outlets lending support and amplifying their message — members are in constant revolt against the speaker, not ousting him but also not allowing him to govern. This has not required a majority of Republicans to be dissatisfied — a small minority is often enough, because they can partner with Democrats to stifle the Republican leadership. Additionally, Republican speakers labor under the Hastert Rule, a custom adopted under the speakership of J. Dennis Hastert that a Republican speaker won’t put legislation on the floor unless a majority of the majority support it. This combination of factors has allowed the hard-right Freedom Caucus to exert a tremendous amount of power.
Making it even harder for both Boehner and Ryan to corral a fractious caucus, the 2010 ban on earmarks removed the best carrot from the speaker’s toolbox, while the outside infrastructure that boosts extreme members has eliminated most of the speaker’s best sticks — fundraising help and committee assignments — for keeping members in line. This situation helped drive both Boehner and Ryan to retire rather than continue to deal with the headache of their job.
The modern speaker still has immense power, including controlling committee assignments, the calendar and the rules, as Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s speakership showed. But a restive conference, relatively narrow majorities and — at least for Ryan — an unpredictable president have been enough to convince two successive speakers that the position was not worth it.
This is not normal. While the speaker has always had the responsibility for managing the disparate demands of his or her conference and the House, new challenges have made the role nearly impossible to manage, in particular the difficulty of uniting the conference behind major legislation and the practice of voting against the speaker as a ritual of political posturing. A strong speaker was supposed to bring order to the chaos of 435 different agendas.
However, today, constant revolts and turnover make the House dysfunctional, as does external pressure from ideological media and groups funded by wealthy donors. In this environment, major legislation only passes at moments of crisis or when leadership circumvents the regular order of hearings and debate. Something has to change to placate the rank-and-file members, to again make the House a representative institution, and it may be the speaker’s power.