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McCarthy's fall marks new low in the speakership's declining status

Kevin McCarthy of Calif., then the newly elected speaker of the House, picks up the gavel as he begins to speak in the House chamber on Jan. 7.
Alex Brandon
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AP
Kevin McCarthy of Calif., then the newly elected speaker of the House, picks up the gavel as he begins to speak in the House chamber on Jan. 7.

The fall of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is surely historic, deserving of both the obsessive media attention and the doleful warnings it has spawned.

Shocking as this week's vote was, we should have been better prepared for it.

It is true that no previous speaker had been ousted by a vote of the whole House in the whole history of the United States. But it should not have been a surprise. We might have seen it coming, short term and long.

In the immediate timeframe, it has been widely noted thatthe rules change made in January that allowed just one House member to force a vote on removing the speaker had meant McCarthy's days were numbered.

A single rank-and-file member can challenge the House's presiding member, who holds an office created by the First Article of the Constitution. In an era of narrow partisan majorities, that rule makes a speaker's removal a daily prospect – and perhaps an inevitability.

But taking a broader view, the status of the speakership has been declining for years – arguably for decades. McCarthy's ouster is the most extreme example, but it is also just the latest in a sequence of events that have increased the vulnerability of the office and thus made the speaker weaker.

The next House speaker will be the fifth since 2010

The speaker's dais is seen in the House of Representatives of the Capitol in Washington. After House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was voted out of the job by a contingent of hard-right conservatives this week, House GOP leaders are now grappling to find a new speaker.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
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AP
The speaker's dais is seen in the House of Representatives of the Capitol in Washington. After House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was voted out of the job by a contingent of hard-right conservatives this week, House GOP leaders are now grappling to find a new speaker.

When House Republicans name a new speaker — perhaps as early as next week — it will be the fifth time the big gavel has changed hands since the "Tea Party" GOP takeover after the 2010 election. That means the previous four speakerships will have lasted an average of three years and two months each.

Three of those exiting speakers were Republicans (McCarthy, Paul Ryan and John Boehner) who failed to placate the hardest core of populist conservatives in the party. Boehner had become speaker in 2011 and tried to both resist the Obama administration and make deals with it. He angered the most aggressive partisans in his own ranks and in 2015 was threatened with a "motion to vacate the chair" – the same weapon used this week to remove McCarthy. Boehner chose not to force a vote to oust him on the House floor, as McCarthy did. Instead, he simply resigned and left Congress.

His successor at the time was Ryan, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who did not seek the speakership but had it pressed upon him by exasperated fellow Republicans who could not agree on anyone else. Ryan ran into the same problems as Boehner had and McCarthy would. He also found it difficult to deal with President Donald Trump, first as the party's nominee in 2016 and then as the nation's leader. Midway through Trump's term, Ryan chose to retire after less than four years as Speaker.

Taking the trend a bit further back, it may be said that McCarthy's truncated tenure marked the latest in a cavalcade of speakers who met with unhappy endings. His predecessors in the job were repudiated by voters, forced out by their colleagues or enveloped in controversy before or after their departures.

The one exception would be the House's current Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who had two turns at the top, the more recent from January 2019 to the start of this year. Pelosi had been speaker in the last two of George W. Bush's White House years and the first two of Barack Obama's. With Obama in the presidency and Democrats controlling the Senate, Pelosi was able to pass the Affordable Care Act and other major legislation.

But after shouldering the controversies, she bore the brunt of a 63-seat loss in 2010, the party's worst drubbing in more than 70 years. Unlike most former speakers, however, she did not retire upon giving up the big gavel. She stood for reelection each cycle until, eight years later, Democrats reclaimed the majority.

So she was again speaker in the 117th Congress, managing the House that impeached Trump and passed much of President Biden's program. Then once again, she gave the gavel back when her party lost its majority in the elections of 2022. And, once again, she declined to retire and has announced her candidacy for 2024, when she will be 84.

Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (center) is applauded by then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and then Minority Leader John Boehner during the ceremony unveiling Hastert's portrait at the U.S. Capitol in 2009.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (center) is applauded by then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and then Minority Leader John Boehner during the ceremony unveiling Hastert's portrait at the U.S. Capitol in 2009.

Hastert was the longest serving Republican speaker

Just before Pelosi, Republican Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican found himself elevated from the middle ranks of the House leadership to speaker in 1998. Hastert was an exception to the recent brevity of speakerships. He served for eight years, the longest any Republican has had the job –including the legendary "czars" of a century earlier.

Hastert had seemed to have reestablished the status of the speakership until a 2006 scandal over a junior Republican's relationships with male pages worsened the party's expected losses in that fall's election. The GOP lost its majority and Hastert retired soon thereafter.

But after leaving office, Hastert also became the highest-ranking U.S. public official ever to go to jail. He served 15 months on federal charges stemming from hush money he was paying to cover up accusations of sexual abuse from his days as a high school teacher and wrestling coach.

The ignominy at the end of Hastert's career was surprising because he had been elevated to speaker as a noncontroversial, low-profile and trusted senior member in 1999. Other candidates at the time were sidelined by, among other problems, media revelations about marital infidelities.

The Republicans needed a new speaker at that time because they had decided not to re-nominate their own leader, Speaker Newt Gingrich, for another term at the top. That highly unusual step was taken in a closed-door conference they held after unexpected losses in the congressional elections of November 1998.

Hastert had been a key part of the leadership's "whip team" that measured and encouraged party unity. It also helped that he had not been part of an abortive coup d'état against Gingrich in the summer of 1997. Other Gingrich lieutenants who had been involved were passed over in the search for a replacement.

Going back to Gingrich

Gingrich, a former college professor from Georgia, had been the architect of the party's "Contract with America" strategy in the 1994 campaign. He became its unofficial spokesman, from his post as the GOP's No. 2 official (minority whip) and leading candidate to succeed the party's longtime leader, Bob Michel of Illinois.

The Contract strategy was mediagenic and popular. But the GOP that year also benefited from redistricting that made Republicans more competitive in many parts of the country but especially in the South. They also benefited from the "buyer's remorse" voters seemed to be feeling toward the first-term President Bill Clinton and some of the legislation his Democrats had enacted in Congress.

The bottom line was a wide-ranging rout in the November 1994 midterms that ended 40 years of Democratic majority in the House and also delivered the Senate to the GOP. Gingrich was installed as the first Republican speaker since the early years of the Dwight Eisenhower administration.

Gingrich's time in that job proved stormy, however, including government shutdowns that were the longest in history at the time. Gingrich himself was seen as petty in his handling of disputes with Clinton, who managed to win a second term in the White House in 1996.

Gingrich's standing among his colleagues had been unquestioned after the 1994 victories. After their party's 40-year sojourn in the "wilderness" of minority status, Gingrich was their Moses. But two often stormy years later, after losing seats in two elections in a row, Gingrich's troops rebelled and forced him out.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Ga., works the phone while peering out the window of his Capitol Hill office on April 4, 1995 in Washington.
Joe Marquette / AP
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AP
House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Ga., works the phone while peering out the window of his Capitol Hill office on April 4, 1995 in Washington.

A pivotal role since the 1980s

Democrats, for their part, relished seeing Gingrich take a hard fall, as he had expended such effort against the previous two speakers. In 1994 he had pilloried Speaker Thomas Foley, a rather scholarly and measured presence in the job, in part for Foley's role in a lawsuit against a referendum in his home state of Washington.

But Gingrich had risen in the eyes of many conservative partisans prior to that with his relentless campaign against Foley's predecessor, Speaker Jim Wright of Texas. Wright was a World War II veteran who had climbed the ladder in the House since 1954, eventually becoming Majority Leader and then, in 1987, taking the final step up to the speakership.

Gingrich had already made his name in the chamber as a critic of Congress and of the Democratic majority, alleging widespread and systemic corruption. When Wright became speaker, Gingrich filed an ethics complaint that came to focus on the sale of Wright's book, Reflections of a Public Man, in bulk to various lobbying interests. In April 1989, the House Ethics Committee formally accused Wright of five counts of rule violations. He resigned in an emotionally charged speech on the floor a month later. Asked later for his feelings about Gingrich, Wright compared them "to the feelings of a fire hydrant about a dog."

Wright had succeeded Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, who served in the job for a decade beginning in 1977. O'Neill was perhaps the last folkloric figure in the role, and the last to leave the office at a time entirely of his own choosing — handing the ceremonial gavel to a member of his own party. No one has held the job for as long since, and no one has been able to leave in the same manner.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.