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Czars And Firebrands: A Brief History Of Power In The House

"If [Joseph] Cannon had been present to vote at the Creation," one observer said at the time, "he would have voted for Chaos."
Library of Congress
"If [Joseph] Cannon had been present to vote at the Creation," one observer said at the time, "he would have voted for Chaos."

This fall, we have seen a sitting House speaker announce his resignation because he no longer feels confident he can control his own party on the floor of the chamber.

We have also seen the House's No. 2 official, the majority leader, withdraw his own candidacy to succeed the speaker because he does not feel he can control his own party on the floor of the chamber.

Both men, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, had devoted decades of their lives and the greater part of their professional careers to reaching the pinnacle of power that is the speakership.

The speakership is the first leadership office specifically created in the U.S. Constitution. Its occupant stands next in the presidential line of succession after the vice president. The speaker has far more power in the House than any one senator has in the Senate. And at times in our history, the speaker's power has rivaled that of the president himself.

The first Congress met in 1789 and elected a distinguished Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania, Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, the first speaker. Muhlenberg would also serve as speaker in the third Congress, which served during George Washington's second term as president.

In 1811, the House chose as speaker a young firebrand from Kentucky who had just taken the oath as a freshman member. Henry Clay represented a wave of Westerners swept into office in 1810 by widespread fears of Indian attacks spurred by the British — a contributing factor in the War of 1812.

All told, Clay would be speaker in six different Congresses and a major focus of politics in the first half of the 19th century. But the man who took the speakership to new levels of power and influence was Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine.

Reed was the Republican speaker after the election of 1888 and twice more in the following decade. Under his suzerainty the speakership became the repository of remarkable authority over procedure, committee assignments, chairmanships and legislation. It was not long before the cartoonists of the day were portraying the Mainer with crown and scepter. He was dubbed "Czar Reed." He resigned from the House in 1899 in a dispute with President William McKinley, who had relented in his opposition to war with Spain.

What followed in the early years of the new century was an even greater level of autocracy under another Republican speaker who saw himself as a counterweight to the progressive policies of President Theodore Roosevelt. Joseph "Uncle Joe" Cannon hailed from Illinois and had little patience for the populists of the South and the West. He was a "regular" or "stalwart" Republican, a paleo-conservative even for his time. "If Cannon had been present to vote at the Creation," one observer said at the time, "he would have voted for chaos."

In addition to all the powers Reed had enjoyed, Cannon liked to exercise his control of the floor. This extended to allocating, or denying, speaking time. One citizen who wrote his congressman asking for a copy of the rules of the House received an envelope with nothing but a picture of Joe Cannon. And on at least one occasion, he reversed a voice vote's evident result, saying: "The ayes were louder, but the nays have it."

Czar Cannon, as he was called, had finally gone too far. A coalition of the chamber's Democrats and progressive Republicans combined to challenge him, offering a privileged floor motion to "vacate the chair." Cannon could not prevent consideration of the measure, nor could he muster enough stalwarts to defeat it. So he compromised and negotiated. The rebels relented and allowed him to remain speaker through the 61st Congress, but with drastic reductions in his powers and those of the speakership itself.

Thereafter, the House evolved a system of committee chairmanships that were awarded primarily by seniority. Under this system, the various chairs owed the speaker nothing and could be competing power centers in their own right. This was especially true for the money committee chairs (Appropriations, Ways and Means) and, on occasion, other panels such as Armed Services or the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Because the chairmanships had no term limits, individuals ran their committees for as long as they could be re-elected. And most were rarely even challenged. Democrat Jamie Whitten of Mississippi chaired the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture from the 1940s until the 1990s (setting aside four years when Republicans were in control).

Some speakers were able to maneuver and horse-trade among the committee barons more effectively than others. Sam Rayburn, by far the longest-serving of all speakers, did this well. In 1961, he helped bring about the bill that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by packing the House Rules Committee with Northerners who opposed the panel's Dixiecrat chairman.

But it was not until the 1970s that the rules for choosing chairs were revised and a vote was taken among all the Democrats in the House. With the arrival of the "Watergate Babies" class in 1974, House liberals had the votes to oust three entrenched committee chairs.

Other large changes in the power flow followed the Republican takeover in 1994, when the Gingrich Revolution also took aim at seniority in the committee system. Gingrich essentially handpicked the chairs for the 104th Congress, sometimes skipping over more senior members to choose those he thought would work with him.

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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