The opposition to the reelection of John Boehner by the right wing of the Republican caucus exposed the usually obscure world of nominating and electing Speakers. As luck would have it, two years ago we published “Fighting for the Speakership,” which explores the history of electing House Speakers from the First Congress through the 112th. We were taken not only by the drama of the roll call vote that ultimately resulted in Boehner’s election, but also by how the specific details of the election illustrate how the norms of speakership elections have evolved in recent years — and how they may be shifting back to older, long-forgotten practices.
First, some background. Depending on how one counts it, Tuesday’s drama was played out according to a script that is between 90 and 154 years old.
The Origins of Binding Party Caucus Nominations
The older script dates from the Civil War era, when both parties gradually developed the practice of the binding nominating caucus that continues to this day. The principles of the caucus were simple: A majority vote was required in caucus to choose the party’s nominee for Speaker. Dissent was allowed in caucus, and horse-trading — usually in the form of dividing up key committee assignments — was encouraged. Eventually, someone would get a majority, the loser would make a motion to declare the election unanimous, and everyone in attendance would be required to vote for the nominee when the matter was brought to the floor. Failure to support the party’s nominee when the roll was called effectively signaled that a member had left the party.
This form of the binding caucus was an outgrowth of ad hoc nominating caucuses that often preceded speakership elections in the antebellum House. The antebellum caucuses were different from the ones that emerged during the 1860s. Nominating caucuses before 1860 were not always held. Absenteeism by minority factions was rampant. Explicit horse-trading to reach an agreeable candidate was frowned upon. As a consequence, speakership elections could go on for days, weeks, and even months, as they did in 1839 (11 ballots, 2 days), 1849 (63 ballots, 17 days), 1855–56 (133 ballots, 2 months), and 1859–60 (44 ballots, 2 months), to name only the most extreme cases.
Thus, the post-bellum nominating caucus represented a true institutional innovation in the organizational history of the House. It channeled intra-party dissent in constructive ways. It also tied the majority party composition of the committees to the power-sharing arrangements that had identified an acceptable nominee for Speaker.
Eventually, this arrangement became the keystone of the organizational cartel, in which the majority party organizes the chamber and settles the most important questions within the family. From the Civil War until the 1923 speakership election, this arrangement held pretty securely, despite many temptations for the party nominating caucuses to dissolve in chaos.
The 1923 Revolt and Party Discipline
The arrangement was tested in 1923, bending nearly to the breaking point. The 1922 midterm elections had reduced the number of Republicans in the House to 225 out of 435. If we count the number of Progressive Republicans at 24 — the number who voted in the caucus against re-nominating Frederick Gillett (Mass.) — then the Progressives could determine whether Gillett would have a House majority. And, while it was unlikely the Progressives would join with the Democrats to organize the chamber, anyone who could add knew that these 24 Republicans plus the chamber’s 207 Democrats also constituted a majority.
On the eve of convening the 68th Congress, Republicans held a nominating caucus at which the Progressive-Conservative split was revealed, when most of the 24 Progressives voted for Henry Cooper (Wis.). The Progressive bloc refused to abide by the cardinal rule of the binding nominating caucus, which required them to support Gillett as the price of participating in it. Instead, they held out for the passage of rules changes that would share parliamentary power in the House more equally. The Republican leadership initially refused, but soon realized that the Progressives meant business. The Progressives forced eight speakership ballots over two days, before Nicholas Longworth (Ohio), the Republican Majority Leader, capitulated and cut a deal — guaranteeing procedural freedom that would allow for liberalizing rules changes, in exchange for the Progressives standing down. Progressive leaders agreed, and Gillett was elected on the first ballot of the third day, and 9th ballot overall.
The Republican Old Guard had to swallow a lot to make this deal, but they had no choice — the alternatives were an unorganized House or a House organized along Democratic/Progressive lines.
The 1924 election added 22 new Republicans to the House, almost all of whom were of the traditional variety. This changed the leadership’s calculus dramatically. Now, the Old Guard could organize the House without the cooperation of the progressives. They acted quickly to take advantage of that fact. First, GOP leaders excluded from the caucus anyone who had supported Progressive Robert La Follette’s campaign for president against Republican Calvin Coolidge. Second, they announced that any remaining Republicans who did not fall in line behind the party’s nominee for Speaker (this time, Longworth) would be punished. When the bulk of the Progressive wing was defiant and again supported Cooper for Speaker, they were disciplined by being stripped of quality committee assignments and placed in what can only be called committee purgatory. Only after the Progressive dissidents supported his speakership election in 1927 did Longworth return them to “regular” status in the party.
Crime and Punishment in Boehner’s House
Longworth’s actions following the 1925 speakership election established the precedent of punishing disloyalty in the balloting for Speaker. From that time until 1997, with the contentious reelection of Newt Gingrich, majority party disloyalty in speakership elections all but disappeared. After 1997, things quieted down again — until 2013, and now 2015, when Boehner has had to endure more than a little dissent from his party in order to win election.
Which brings us back to this past Tuesday. After observing little in the way of overt punishment of dissidents in 2013 and little saber rattling by the Republican leadership in 2015, our first reaction was to wonder whether the world of the binding nominating caucus was coming to an end. If the worst that could happen to a dissenter was that a plum committee position would be denied — which is quite different from being stripped of a plum position — then the binding caucus was in trouble. And then, word came that the names of Daniel Webster and Rich Nugent (both Fla.) had been taken off the resolution naming Republican members of the Rules Committee, and that further committee assignments would be considered “in light of Tuesday’s events.” There is fight in the caucus yet.
Like 1925, the 2015 speakership election is evidence for the difference it makes when a majority party has a comfortable margin. In the 113th Congress, two-dozen-or-so stalwart tea party Republicans could make or break any effort that required the GOP leadership to assemble a coalition of 218 House members. This obviously limited the ability of Boehner’s lieutenants to retaliate against defectors in 2013. In 2015, with the Republican contingent precisely the size of its 1925 majority, and the size of the dissident faction of similar size as well, leadership’s hand is strengthened immeasurably.
Of course, unlike 1923–1925, the dissident faction is on the right flank of the party, not the left. However, that may strengthen the Republican leadership even more than in the days of Gillette and Longworth. After all, the Gohmers and Yohos of the world have nowhere to go. As a consequence, it would be unsurprising to see leadership imposing even greater sanctions on the part of the tea party wing that refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Boehner’s leadership.
Many news accounts of Tuesday’s speakership election framed the contest in terms of Boehner’s historic weakness — after all, no majority party candidate for Speaker had had to endure as many as 25 defections since before the Civil War. However, if we look closely at the operation of the binding nominating caucus over time, we can see how this seeming weakness can easily be turned into a strength. Over the next few weeks, as committee assignments are doled out and leadership assigned to the party’s legislative agenda, we will see just how far Boehner and his team will press their advantage.