What Issue Delayed House Speaker?

US Capitol Building at sunset with American flags is the home of the United States Congress in Washington D.C, USA. iStock

What was the issuebehind the Speaker ballots?

Look at the possibilities—the economy, immigration, the War in Ukraine—yield not one single issue to unite behind Kevin McCarthy’s bid. When last the decision of a leader in the House dragged on for days—1855 and 1859—one point burned across the landscape, slavery. With few exceptions, the choice blazed “yes” in the South and “no” in the North before the Civil War. Neither side wanted a leader in the House who did not share their views. But then, slavery or the defeat of slavery would be debated. But in 2023 it’s to feed the personal agendas of those 20 Members seeking to raise money for their own political campaigns and for right-wing causes, but mainly to grasp TV time on CSPAN and FOX.

In 1855, it took 133 ballots to elect Nathaniel Banks (R-Massachusetts) of the American Party as Speaker. The decision stretched from December 2, 1855, to February 3, 1856, when he bested William Aiken D-SC just 103 to 100. The contest began with 21 candidates for Speaker but winnowed to three final candidates, who were called upon to state their views on the recent legislation on slavery expansion in the West. Rep. Banks had ties to anti-slavery New York Times Editor Horace Greeley. In one of many fights on and off the House floor that year, Albert Rust (D-Arkansas) tried to disqualify Banks, punching him with his fist. Then later, Rep. Banks found Rep. Banks and Greeley downtown and hit Banks with his cane.

Now the U.S. House vote for Speaker came down to 213 FOR, not slavery or any defining policy, but in support of giving the POWER of the gavel to Kevin McCarthy v. 213 AGAINST McCarthy and FOR Hakeem Jeffries, who consistently pulled his Party members, but could not reach the 218 required to win the gavel. In the end, past the midnight hour Friday, McCarthy swayed a few votes his way, then persuaded six to vote “present,” reducing the number needed to stop the impasse. (Heaven help us if he promised more than giving the far right the ability to remove him if five of the 20 far-right Members do not fancy his leadership, requiring another ring-around-the-rosy.) Finally, at 1:30 am Saturday, McCarthy snatched the gavel and waved it above his head, nearly like an ax. Let the games begin.

I wondered who won the gavel in 1859-1860 after that Congressional battle. William Pennington won the election for Speaker on Feb. 1, 1860, after 63 ballots. He had been governor of New Jersey from 1837-43. His father served in the Revolutionary Army and as and had served as N.J. governor after the war (1813-15). Later Madison appointed William to a federal judgeship. Amid that balloting for Speaker, there were nine physical fights of the floor of the House and one street fight involving Members of Congress.

ASIDE: To show every era has its voting challenges, twenty-three years before William served as Speaker, he was involved in the “Broad Seal War” in New Jersey. Two contingents of candidates (Democrats and Whigs) in a closely contested race came before him as governor. Each held commissions bearing the seal of New Jersey on the opening day of the 26th Congress in 1839, requesting to be seated. Pennington seated the Whigs (his Party) and refused to sit 5 of the 6 Democrats. Finally, after they proved the county clerks in Cumberland and Middlesex counties suppressed returns in certain townships, the Democrats were seated on February 28, 1840. These members gave the Democrats the majority in the House.

Members avoided violence in 2023, but late on Friday when on the 14th ballot Matt Gaetz (R-FL), leader of the “Never Kevin” extreme right-wing contingent, voted Present,” tensions mounted. At first, GOP members thought that would be enough to seal the deal. Instead, Congressional fisticuffs threatened Friday night when Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) moved fists drawn towards Rep. Gaetz only to be restrained by a fellow Southern Member, averting a battle, not wanting to solve frustrations with violence. Later it was learned that Rep. Rogers had been rumored to be the next Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Will his undisciplined action on Friday night deter other Members from confirming him to this leadership position?

Promises to grasp the gavel in 2023?

Offerings to the Publicity-Thirsty Gang of 15 foretells of rocky times ahead. Could it be called blackmail? We will have two years to determine how this quid-pro-quo operates.

Offerings were made to those who changed their vote from “Never Kevin” to “Present,” making it possible for McCarthy to acquire the Speaker’s gavel. Here are some of the suggested concessions:

  1. If just one Member disagrees with the Speaker, a roll call of the House could be called to determine whether he stays or goes (referred to as having a pistol pointed at the Speaker’s head).
  2. More of the 15 Disaffected could serve on the all-important Rules Committee that sets what bills would be placed on the calendar, when, and what amendments are allowed.
  3. Allow a House vote on term limits.
  4. Possibly also setting the 2022 spending limit for 2024, requiring federal budget cuts and a $75 billion cut in the federal military budget.

It remains to be seen how much of this wish list will be delivered, difficult voting on the Rules of the House and the 2023-2024 legislative agenda. In the Spring, America’s debt ceiling is expected to be reached. A similar legislative fight took place in 2011 when the nation also experienced divided government between the House and the White House. Will the U.S. maintain its financial reputation around the globe? Will media on GOP and DEM sides be able to adequately explain the real impact failing to pay America’s debts have on the average American? In 2011, the nation’s credit rating declined. What will happen in 2023?

Freeman, Joanne B. “It’s Tempting to Laugh at McCarthy’s Struggles, but History Shows That This Type of Chaos is Not a Joke.”  New York Times, Jan. 7, 2023.

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