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Can a New Speaker Reinstate an Old Norm?

A Commentary By Michael Barone

After a little more than three weeks, House Republicans have finally elected a speaker. He's Mike Johnson, first elected to the House in 2016 from a district in northwest Louisiana. He's almost unknown to the public, has a right-wing voting record, and has been a supporter of Donald Trump. He grills witnesses effectively but calmly, with no visible anger.

How he does as speaker, whether he moves appropriations bills as promised, his skill negotiating with a Democratic president and Senate -- all this is obviously unknown as I write. Unknown as well is whether his election with no dissenting Republican votes could help restore a political norm that has been eroded steadily in recent years.

The speakership is an odd political post, one of just two internal congressional offices mentioned in the Constitution. It was important to the framers, who remembered how in 1642, when King Charles I entered the House of Commons and demanded the arrest of five members, Speaker William Lenthall refused.

"May it please your Majesty," he said, "I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am." No monarch has entered the Commons chamber in the three centuries since.

In Britain, the speaker operates as a neutral arbiter; the current speaker was a Labour member chosen for his perceived fairness by a Conservative majority. In this country, where political parties, though dreaded and denounced by the founders, came into operation almost immediately, speakers are partisan officials, leaders of their parties with only ceremonial institutional responsibilities.

The longest speakerless intervals in the House came in the middle of the 19th century, as the Whig Party was dying out, the Know Nothing and Republican parties were founded, and the Democratic Party split between South and North.

In 1855, it took the House two months and 133 ballots to elect a Know Nothing speaker (a former Democrat, he later became a Republican), and in 1859 nearly two months and 44 ballots to elect a Whig (who was defeated in his home district in 1860).
The House's 22 speakerless days this month, by comparison, was brief, as were the four days and 15 ballots it took to elect McCarthy last January.

The norm of all party members supporting the speaker chosen by secret ballot in conference (the Republican term) or caucus (the Democratic term) grew up in the stabler partisan environment emerging from the Civil War. The speaker, in turn, tended to choose committee chairmen and manage the flow of legislation to and amendments on the floor through control of the Rules Committee.

Speakers' powers were whittled back in the 1910 revolt against Speaker Joseph Cannon; the progressive rebels, passed over for chairmanships for a dozen years, thought the fair way to allot them was by seniority, a system which by the 1950s weakened speakers and empowered anti-civil rights Southern Democrats.

That was reversed when House Democrats led by Phillip Burton in 1974 and House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich in 1994 instituted the election of committee chairmen by members and party leaders. Before those changes, there had been little point in withholding votes from speakers, and in any case Democrats won at least 243 seats -- well above the 218 majority -- in every House election from 1958 through 1992.

But in the 15 House elections starting in 1994, only once has a party won more than 243 seats, and with House rules requiring speakers to win absolute majorities of those voting, the potential has grown for violating the norm and voting against a party's speaker candidate.
Thus in 1998, when Republicans lost rather than gained seats, a few holdouts said they wouldn't vote again for Newt Gingrich, and after a memorable four-year speakership, he retired.

Among Democrats, violations of the norm became more common as some members sought to set themselves apart from the party's liberal stands. But with the steely discipline exercised in her record 19 years as Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi kept the numbers of norm violators down: 15 of 235 Democrats voted against her in 2019; just two of 222 Democrats did so in 2021.

No recent Republican leader had Pelosi's strengths. In 2013, House Freedom Caucus members, encouraged by freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), imagined they could force non-funding of Obamacare on a Democratic president and Senate. Such shenanigans prompted the resignation of Speaker John Boehner in September 2015 and may have persuaded Speaker Paul Ryan to retire from Congress at age 48 in 2018.

So last January, enough Republicans felt free to vote against the conference's clear choice, McCarthy, to deny him the speakership for 14 ballots. And in October, backbencher Matt Gaetz, with no non-personal discernible grievance, felt free to move to oust him as speaker, and with seven other Republicans and every Democrat, he did.

Each of the conference's choices either bowed out or got fewer votes on each floor vote. Members with picayune cavils and even the chairman of the Appropriations Committee freely violated the long-standing norm.

Evidently, this spectacle of disarray prompted second thoughts. Mike Johnson, with a serious but not angry demeanor and with few enemies accumulated in his three terms, won not just a majority in conference but also got assurance no one would vote against him on the floor. No Republican did, for the first time in a dozen years.

So has the norm been restored? And what about the more important norm of accepting the outcome of presidential elections? In 2005, 32 House and Senate Democrats challenged George W. Bush's victory on frivolous grounds.

In 2016 and 2017, Democrats concocted and pursued the Russia collusion hoax, attempting to delegitimize Donald Trump's election and drive him from office. And on Jan. 6, 2021, after mobs pillaged the Capitol, 147 Senate and House Republicans voted against accepting states' electoral votes.

Apologies and confessions of error have been forthcoming from few, if any, hoax perpetrators or election deniers. Any chance they will?

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. His new book, "Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America's Revolutionary Leaders," will be released Nov. 28.

See Other Political Commentary.

See Other Commentaries by Michael Barone.

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