What lessons can the House draw from 1923’s speaker battle?
Special to The Washington Post January 10, 2023
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., finally secured the House speakership, on the 15th ballot, after four days of negotiations and numerous concessions to the rebellious right flank of his caucus.
The process played out as an eerie echo of the internecine Republican fight over the speakership in 1923. That year, a narrow GOP majority took three days and nine rounds of voting before it coalesced around Frederick H. Gillett, R-Mass., who, like McCarthy, had been the leading GOP vote-getter throughout the process. This happened only after negotiations led by Nicholas Longworth, R-Ohio, produced an acceptable bargain on rule changes.
Comparing the two moments is useful, not so much for the many similarities they reveal, but for the differences. Unlike a century ago, the recent speaker battle exposed a weak GOP leadership and a dysfunctional caucus, alongside the decaying power of establishment politics within parties, in part thanks to how today’s media encourages sensationalism and political bomb-throwing.
In particular, our political system does not reward political compromise — especially for those on the right. That makes bipartisanship and coalition-formation (within and across the aisle) especially difficult. This moment represents the culmination of a decade-long trend in which the GOP lacks a clear and effective strategy to deal with internal opposition from the fringes of its party.
As was the case last week, the GOP experienced significant fluctuations leading up to the speaker vote 100 years ago.
The party had anticipated retaining its large majority in the 1922 midterm elections. But the economy wasn’t booming as Republicans had promised in 1920; and so, as they often do in midterms, voters rejected members of the party holding the White House. Despite losses, however, Republicans maintained narrowed majorities in both the House and Senate.
Then in August 1923, Warren G. Harding died, elevating Calvin Coolidge to the presidency and creating more uncertainty.
And the GOP remained split between conservatives like Coolidge and a self-proclaimed progressive wing, which in the House, wanted to “modernize” the chamber’s rules. These Republicans, such as Wisconsin’s Henry Allen Cooper and New York’s Fiorello H. La Guardia, were actually to the left of most Democrats politically, and while they might not have controlled the party, they had enough clout to complicate matters for establishment Republicans like Gillett and Longworth, who emerged as the party’s floor leader.
When the Republican caucus voted on its leadership on Dec. 1, 1923, as was customary then, Gillett achieved victory in one round, yet he garnered fewer than 200 votes — far short of the number the GOP would need in a couple of days when the full House voted on a speaker.
On Dec. 3, the House began voting, and members went through four rounds without making a selection — only the second time since 1856 that the contest had gone to multiple ballots. Both Finis J. Garrett, D-Tenn., the Democratic choice, and Gillett were in the 190s on each ballot. While Garrett was in the minority party, Gillett struggled to win the necessary number of votes because 15 members of his caucus cast votes for Henry Allen Cooper, who totaled 17 votes, while another candidate, Martin Madden, R-Ill., collected a handful.
John Nelson, R-Wis., a progressive who had been in the House on and off since 1906, made clear his wing of the party knew it had leverage: “We have got the votes, and the House will not be organized until our demands are met.” Nelson told the press that if his group could put forth modifications to House rules, then they would be willing to endorse Gillett for speaker.
They wanted to open the House up to make it easier to get votes on progressive legislation. That included better committee membership for their bloc and more ability to bring their issues up for debate. As Cooper later explained, they wanted “a reasonable and fair opportunity to propose amendments, not to coerce amendments, but to have a reasonable and fair discussion of our proposals.”
The insurgents didn’t waver on the second day of voting. For four additional rounds, Gillett and Garrett still hovered in the 190s, while 17 votes stuck with Cooper, and Madden’s name remained in the mix. Old guard Republicans were making no headway in securing the position for Gillett. Even so, he and Longworth were unwilling to relent — pushing the insurgents to fall in line.
Something, or perhaps, more accurately, someone, had to give.
So Longworth met with key insurgents and offered an agreement to enable the rules to undergo revisions. Among his concessions: reducing the number of members needed to bring bills to the floor from committees, and permitting a renegotiation of rules after the speaker election, with the final decision to be made by majority vote, not the leadership.
This was enough for the insurgents. The next day, the bulk of the progressives joined with their fellow Republicans to elect Gillett speaker. The 1923 speakership election was a critical juncture in the trajectory of the Republican Party, which would dominate politics throughout the decade.
Even so, the high-profile series of votes was seen by both parties and the press as a debacle.
That had two consequences. First, the gains made by the insurgents proved to be short-lived. In 1925, Longworth replaced Gillett as speaker, this time with a larger Republican majority.
No longer needing the roughly 20 progressive Republican rebels and recalling the pain they had inflicted, he and his allies unwound the rule concessions they had made two years earlier. They punished and stripped the remaining insurgents of committee memberships. Longworth declared, “We have left the door open for their return, but until they do so, we propose to proceed according to the American system of responsible majority party government.” He dictated that his House would be in order.
The negative press from the 1923 floor fight also ensured that for the ensuing century, speakership fights and negotiations have been handled outside of the spotlight in caucus. By the time the House organizes, speakership elections have been painless and without drama.
As a century ago, a faction in the GOP succeeded in securing rules changes and more influence over what legislation the House passes.
But while the two battles appear similar at first blush, there are crucial differences that reflect changes in American politics and which make retribution far less likely for the 2023 rebels.
In 1923, the dissident faction was the most moderate wing of the party. Today, it is the most extreme.
And the fractious fight — which even included one Republican being restrained after lunging at another — reflects a weak GOP and the weakening of establishment politics more broadly. The old gatekeepers, norms and agenda-setting practices are mostly gone, particularly on the right.
Primaries are open, funding is crowdsourced and precisely gerrymandered districts are safe, dramatically reducing the influence of parties and insiders. The political media ecosystem also rewards sensationalism, sound bites and viral moments. Today, Fox News appearances and viral “owning the libs” — or even insufficiently hardcore party leaders — moments often can “make” right-wing politicians.
That benefits the extremes over the center, but it also undercuts centralization, organization and strategy (e.g., the GOP’s “candidate quality” problem in 2022). And it creates incentives that parties, despite all their funds and infrastructure, simply cannot match.
Far-right members like Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo. — who both eventually relented enough to vote present in the speaker fight — are virtually immune from retribution by party leaders. They actively delight in thwarting the orders and organizational efforts of figures like McCarthy, which boosts their anti-establishment and “anti-swamp” credibility and furthers their brands. This reality encouraged them to dig in and resist longer than the rebels did in 1923.
Such incentive structures also explain why the concessions gained by the conservative dissidents from McCarthy all aim to constrain his power and ability to negotiate bipartisan deals — and why no deal was reached within the House GOP before the chamber started voting this week: compromise is a dirty word in Republican politics. It’s also why the GOP rebels insisted on a rule change to enable one member to trigger a vote to depose McCarthy, giving them leverage over everything he does.
In this political world, it would be difficult for the Republican leadership to punish its rebellious faction in meaningful ways, as Longworth did in 1925. Instead, they probably will continue to bedevil party leaders moving forward, because in many ways, they hold all of the cards.
Christopher McKnight Nichols is professor of history and Woody Hayes Chair in national security studies at The Ohio State University. He is author of “Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age” and editor and author of “Rethinking American Grand Strategy” and “Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations: New Histories.” Maxine Wagenhoffer is a doctoral candidate in modern U.S. History at The Ohio State University. Her dissertation focuses on the intersections of gender, politics and American celebrity culture through the lens of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.