NPR logo House Speakership: A 75-Year Timeline Of Mounting Frustration

House Speakership: A 75-Year Timeline Of Mounting Frustration

Though it holds immense power, the House speakership seems like the worst job in Washington these days. Current Speaker John Boehner wants to leave, but after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suddenly dropped out of the contest, it could be anybody's race. Rep. Paul Ryan doesn't want to do it, though he's been prodded, and it's not clear any other candidate has enough consensus to win on the House floor. The House now plans to choose a new speaker at the end of this month, if it can.

Today's struggle seems like a lot of drama, but a look back at the speakership shows that, at least since the 1940s, it's had more than its share of tension, struggle and rebellion. And extreme partisanship on Capitol Hill has made the job even more unmanageable:

(We have a look at the rise of power in the House here, including why some earlier speakers were called czars).

A Modern History Of House Speaker Drama

  • Holding It Together: Sam Rayburn Of Texas

    Rep. Sam Rayburn, D-Texas, takes his position in the speaker's chair of the House of Representatives in 1941. i

    Rep. Sam Rayburn, D-Texas, takes his position in the speaker's chair of the House of Representatives in 1941. AP hide caption

    toggle caption AP
    Rep. Sam Rayburn, D-Texas, takes his position in the speaker's chair of the House of Representatives in 1941.

    Rep. Sam Rayburn, D-Texas, takes his position in the speaker's chair of the House of Representatives in 1941.

    AP

    1940-1961 (except 1947-1949 and 1953-1959)

    The first speaker of the House whom living Americans might still remember is Sam Rayburn, the legendary leader of the Democrats in the House from 1940 until his death in 1961. Rayburn was speaker for all but four of those years, stepping down twice when Republicans seized the majority in 1946 and 1952 (losing it again, both times, after just two years). Rayburn was an inside player, known not for making speeches but for making laws by making deals. Perhaps better than any 20th-century speaker, he managed the powerful senior members who otherwise were "chairmen for life" and ruled their committee fiefdoms with little accountability. Rayburn also held together the widely disparate parts of his party, which included hardcore segregationists from the Deep South as well as African-American members from the nation's largest cities. The Democrats were so divided that Congressional Quarterly voting records listed them as SD (for Southern Democrats) and ND (for National Democrats), and CQ regularly reported the votes of the "conservative coalition," which consisted of the Southern Democrats and the chamber's Republicans. The latter coalition often prevailed in the 1940s and 1950s. In one of his last acts, Rayburn helped the young new President John F. Kennedy move a civil rights bill by diluting the power of the House Rules Committee Chairman Howard W. Smith. That committee, once a graveyard for otherwise popular bills, has never been as powerful since.

  • Overwhelmed By Turbulence: John William McCormack Of Massachusetts

    Speaker John W. McCormack, the chairman of the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, blasts Republicans Aug. 25, 1964, as he delivers his speech to convention delegates. He charged that the GOP had been captured by extremists who used methods of totalitarian movements. i

    Speaker John W. McCormack, the chairman of the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, blasts Republicans Aug. 25, 1964, as he delivers his speech to convention delegates. He charged that the GOP had been captured by extremists who used methods of totalitarian movements. Bob Schutz/AP hide caption

    toggle caption Bob Schutz/AP
    Speaker John W. McCormack, the chairman of the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, blasts Republicans Aug. 25, 1964, as he delivers his speech to convention delegates. He charged that the GOP had been captured by extremists who used methods of totalitarian movements.

    Speaker John W. McCormack, the chairman of the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, blasts Republicans Aug. 25, 1964, as he delivers his speech to convention delegates. He charged that the GOP had been captured by extremists who used methods of totalitarian movements.

    Bob Schutz/AP

    1961-1971

    Through the long period of Democratic hegemony in the House, the party often bridged its regional divide on what was called the "Boston-Austin axis." The leadership alternated between Southerners and Northerners, often from Massachusetts or Texas. McCormack kept the line going when he acceded to the top job on Rayburn's death. Although considered a liberal, McCormack was an old-school politician in his 70s, often overwhelmed by the turbulence of his times. But he remained the House speaker through that difficult decade. He supported the civil rights legislation and Great Society programs under President Lyndon Johnson and also the war in Vietnam, which was still raging when he retired in 1970.

  • Shied From The Public Eye: Carl Albert Of Oklahoma

    House Speaker Carl Albert, D-Okla., swears in new members of Congress during a re-enactment at the Capitol on Jan. 14, 1975. i

    House Speaker Carl Albert, D-Okla., swears in new members of Congress during a re-enactment at the Capitol on Jan. 14, 1975. AP hide caption

    toggle caption AP
    House Speaker Carl Albert, D-Okla., swears in new members of Congress during a re-enactment at the Capitol on Jan. 14, 1975.

    House Speaker Carl Albert, D-Okla., swears in new members of Congress during a re-enactment at the Capitol on Jan. 14, 1975.

    AP

    1971-1977

    McCormack's successor returned the big gavel to the Southwest, hailing from a town near Rayburn's home district. Albert was another inside player like his predecessors, and was rarely in the public eye during the dramatic events of the period. These included the Watergate upheaval from 1972 through 1974, which saw the House Judiciary Committee draw up articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. Albert retired in 1976 after just three terms as speaker.

  • A Garrulous Symbol: Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts

    House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., D-Mass., meets with reporters at a news conference on Capitol Hill on April 8, 1981. i

    House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., D-Mass., meets with reporters at a news conference on Capitol Hill on April 8, 1981. John Duricka/AP hide caption

    toggle caption John Duricka/AP
    House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., D-Mass., meets with reporters at a news conference on Capitol Hill on April 8, 1981.

    House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., D-Mass., meets with reporters at a news conference on Capitol Hill on April 8, 1981.

    John Duricka/AP

    1977-1987

    The man many still see when they try to picture a speaker of the House was Thomas Phillip O'Neill Jr., whose snowy mane and "face like the map of Ireland" were instantly recognizable for a decade and beyond. Unlike earlier, more inward-facing speakers, the garrulous O'Neill became a symbol for Congress — and the Democratic Party. Republican ads in 1980 featured a lookalike actor portraying him as old and out of touch. The GOP won big that year behind the Electoral College landslide of Ronald Reagan, taking control of the Senate and gaining enough seats in the House to give Reagan a working majority of Republicans and conservative Democrats. Northern and liberal Democrats became frustrated with O'Neill in subsequent years, even as O'Neill's comfy personal relationship with Reagan enabled a modus operandi between the branches. O'Neill finished a full decade in power before retiring in declining health after the 1986 elections had restored Democratic control in the Senate.

  • 'Season Of Mindless Cannibalism': Jim Wright Of Texas

    House Speaker Jim Wright holds a news conference on Capitol Hill on Aug. 6, 1987, commenting that "he earnestly hoped" President Reagan's cease-fire proposal to the Nicaraguan government succeeded. i

    House Speaker Jim Wright holds a news conference on Capitol Hill on Aug. 6, 1987, commenting that "he earnestly hoped" President Reagan's cease-fire proposal to the Nicaraguan government succeeded. Lana Harris/AP hide caption

    toggle caption Lana Harris/AP
    House Speaker Jim Wright holds a news conference on Capitol Hill on Aug. 6, 1987, commenting that "he earnestly hoped" President Reagan's cease-fire proposal to the Nicaraguan government succeeded.

    House Speaker Jim Wright holds a news conference on Capitol Hill on Aug. 6, 1987, commenting that "he earnestly hoped" President Reagan's cease-fire proposal to the Nicaraguan government succeeded.

    Lana Harris/AP

    1987-1989

    Stepping up after a decade in the House majority leader role, Wright had big plans from the beginning. His party had regained control of the Senate, and President Reagan was nearing the end of his second term. Wright worked with both parties and the Senate on trade legislation and a major highway bill, which was enacted over Reagan's veto. Wright also made headlines by vigorously opposing the White House's anti-communist moves in Central America. But while still in his first term as speaker, Wright ran into two controversies that would torpedo him. One was a pay raise for Congress, which was slated to slide through unless Congress voted it down. Taking heat for this procedure from talk radio and other media, Wright scheduled a vote on the raise. Members voted to reject the raise, but privately seethed over the outcome. At the same time, an ethics charge against Wright, primarily for profiting from bulk sales of his personal memoir, gained traction in the media and in the House's own ethics committee. Faced with censure or possibly worse, Wright resigned in June 1989, less than six months into his second term as speaker. In his farewell speech, he decried the partisan ethos of the moment and begged his colleagues to end this "season of mindless cannibalism." The man who had largely engineered the ethics proceedings, Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, was elected that same year to be House minority whip, the second-ranking position among House Republicans.

  • Picking Up The Pieces: Tom Foley Of Washington

    Thomas Foley, D-Wash., at a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, in 1991. i

    Thomas Foley, D-Wash., at a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, in 1991. Barry Thumma/AP hide caption

    toggle caption Barry Thumma/AP
    Thomas Foley, D-Wash., at a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, in 1991.

    Thomas Foley, D-Wash., at a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, in 1991.

    Barry Thumma/AP

    1989-1995

    The job of picking up the pieces after Wright's ignominious exit fell to a tall and broad-shouldered Westerner known for his formality, mild manners and talent for listening. Foley hailed from a Republican-leaning district in eastern Washington state and had been a loyal lieutenant to O'Neill and Wright, often tasked with negotiating bipartisan compromises. Some in the institution could envision Foley enduring in the job and establishing a historic speakership. But it was not to be. The election of President Bill Clinton in 1992 led to a tempestuous 102nd Congress and an earthquake of a midterm election in 1994. Republicans surged to their first House majority in 40 years, and among the victims was Foley, defeated for re-election to his own seat. He later served as U.S. ambassador to Japan.

  • A Kind Of Moses (Briefly): Newt Gingrich Of Georgia

    Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. is sworn in as House speaker on Jan. 4, 1995, in the House chambers on Capitol Hill in Washington. i

    Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. is sworn in as House speaker on Jan. 4, 1995, in the House chambers on Capitol Hill in Washington. Joe Marquette/AP hide caption

    toggle caption Joe Marquette/AP
    Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. is sworn in as House speaker on Jan. 4, 1995, in the House chambers on Capitol Hill in Washington.

    Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. is sworn in as House speaker on Jan. 4, 1995, in the House chambers on Capitol Hill in Washington.

    Joe Marquette/AP

    1994-1999

    Gingrich led the Republican charge in 1994. At the time, he was still the party's No. 2, but longtime GOP leader Bob Michel was retiring, and Gingrich masterminded the "Contract with America" and other media strategies that focused voter anger on the Democrats. Leading his people to the promised land after 40 years in the minority made Gingrich a kind of Moses, but only for a brief moment. His rank and file demanded confrontation with Clinton, which resulted in government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996. These backfired, helping Clinton revive his own popularity and win a second term, while Republicans saw their margin of control narrow in the House. In 1997, several members of Gingrich's leadership team were involved in an abortive coup d'etat against him. Weakened, Gingrich nonetheless remained as speaker through the 105th Congress, presiding as the House impeached Clinton late in 1998. But impeachment was not popular, and the Republicans lost seats in the midterms that same fall. Blame for this attached to Gingrich, who declined to seek another term as speaker.

  • Struggle In The Ranks: Dennis Hastert Of Illinois

    House Speaker-to-be Dennis Hastert holds a news conference on Jan. 4, 1999, in Washington. i

    House Speaker-to-be Dennis Hastert holds a news conference on Jan. 4, 1999, in Washington. Joe Marquette/AP hide caption

    toggle caption Joe Marquette/AP
    House Speaker-to-be Dennis Hastert holds a news conference on Jan. 4, 1999, in Washington.

    House Speaker-to-be Dennis Hastert holds a news conference on Jan. 4, 1999, in Washington.

    Joe Marquette/AP

    1999-2007

    In the late weeks of 1998, even as the House Republicans moved to impeach Clinton, a struggle took place within their top ranks over the speakership. An earlier favorite for the job was Bob Livingston of Louisiana, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. But Hustler magazine published an account of his marital infidelities. The most senior member of leadership was House Majority Leader Dick Armey, but the Texan's popularity had fallen off. The party whip, Tom DeLay, might have won the job but declined to run. So the mantle fell to the Chief Deputy Whip Dennis Hastert, a respected vote counter and consensus builder who had not been regarded as especially ambitious. Hastert, a throwback to the inside-game speakers of the past, rarely sought the spotlight. He was sometimes regarded as a stand-in for the more aggressive and controlling DeLay. But he was elected speaker in four Congresses, and his eight years in the office make him the longest-serving Republican speaker in history. In 2006, a scandal regarding a junior member's relationship with House pages cast doubt on Hastert's leadership. And in any event, his party lost control of the House in that fall's midterm election. So Hastert retired and became a successful lobbyist. But in 2014 he was charged with evading disclosure laws in making cash withdrawals from a bank and lying to the FBI about the withdrawals. The withdrawals were reported to be hush money for a former student he knew while teaching and coaching wrestling at an Illinois high school in the 1970s. Hastert was in court Oct. 15 and is expected to plead guilty later this month to charges related to that controversy.

  • Delivery And Loss: Nancy Pelosi Of California

    Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduces the presidential nomination process at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. i

    Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduces the presidential nomination process at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Paul Sancya/AP hide caption

    toggle caption Paul Sancya/AP
    Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduces the presidential nomination process at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

    Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduces the presidential nomination process at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

    Paul Sancya/AP

    2007-2011

    The first woman to serve as leader of either party in either chamber of Congress, Pelosi acceded to the speakership in January 2007 when the Democrats reclaimed control of both chambers following 12 years in the minority. As that Congress began, President George W. Bush was still wrestling with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that Congress was over the entire federal government was reeling from a stock market crash and a looming recession. Pelosi got reinforcements in the election of 2008, along with a Democratic president to work with in Barack Obama. Again and again in the 110th Congress, Pelosi delivered nearly all her Democrats to pass Obama's legislation — including the economic stimulus, the auto industry bailout, the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and the re-regulation of Wall Street known as the Dodd-Frank bill. But reaction to these new laws, and to Obama himself, began to register as early as the town hall meetings that House members held in the summer of 2009. By the fall of the next year, the pushback known as the Tea Party movement was at high tide, and Pelosi's Democrats lost more than 60 seats, the worst loss of House seats for the party since 1938.

  • Rebellion In The Troops: John Boehner Of Ohio

    House Speaker John Boehner holds a press conference on July 30, 2011, at the Capitol in Washington. i

    House Speaker John Boehner holds a press conference on July 30, 2011, at the Capitol in Washington. Toby Jorrin/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

    toggle caption Toby Jorrin/AFP/Getty Images
    House Speaker John Boehner holds a press conference on July 30, 2011, at the Capitol in Washington.

    House Speaker John Boehner holds a press conference on July 30, 2011, at the Capitol in Washington.

    Toby Jorrin/AFP/Getty Images

    2011-present

    In many ways Boehner was a curious choice to lead the Tea Party troops in their crusade against the Obama presidency in 2011. While indubitably a conservative, he had not been a "movement conservative" or a particularly ideological politician. In the early months of his speakership, he negotiated with the White House over budget compromises that might be acceptable to both parties. But when he brought a version of his "grand bargain" to his troops, they rebelled. When time came to raise the debt ceiling, to accommodate new borrowing to pay for longstanding U.S. obligations, the House balked. It was soon clear that Boehner's go-along-get-long approach was at odds with the more radical thinking of many in his newly expanded caucus. In 2012, Obama was re-elected and the GOP failed to capture the Senate. Frustration again spilled over, with the House forcing a government shutdown in the fall of 2013. During the midterm election primaries of 2014, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated for re-nomination in his district in Virginia. That stunning defeat served notice that no one, even in the highest levels of leadership, was safe from a challenge from the right. In the current Congress, the 114th, Boehner has tussled repeatedly with the activist core represented by the Freedom Caucus. This group of about 40 members, angered by Boehner's willingness to pass bills using Democratic votes, threatened to challenge his speakership the next time he did that. They backed off using a government-shutdown strategy only after Boehner announced he was resigning. His resignation is to take effect at the end of this month, one day after the House chooses a new speaker. If it can.

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