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Could Conservatives Overthrow Boehner? What History Can Tell Us

- December 6, 2012

This is a guest post by Jeffery A. Jenkins of the University of Virginia.  Jenkins and Charles Stewart are the authors of the new book Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government.


On Monday, the Republican Steering Committee, at the behest of Speaker John Boehner, removed four Republicans from prime committee assignments in advance of the convening of the 113thCongress: Justin Amash (MI) and Tim Huelskamp (KS) from the Budget Committee and Walter B. Jones (NC) and David Schweikert (AZ) from the Financial Services Committee.  Reports suggest that these members were ousted because of insufficient support for leadership positions (i.e., low leadership support scores) on a set of key votes in the 112th Congress.  See here, here, and here.  In addition, three of these individuals (Amash, Huelskamp, and Schweikert) are considered among the more conservative members of the Republican Conference, suggesting that Boehner is trying to rein in the rebellious Tea Party tendencies that were so apparent in the 112th Congress.

This committee “purge” has elicited considerable outrage in conservative circles inside and outside of Washington.  The most radical suggestion, offered by Ned Ryun on the conservative blog Red State, is that a small group of Republicans signal their unhappiness with Boehner by voting against him in the speakership vote on the House floor.  Ryun argues that if 16 Republicans abstain from voting for Boehner for Speaker, based on the assumption that there will be 233 Republicans in attendance when the 113th House convenes in January, then he will fail to receive a majority – and, in time (assuming repeated, inconclusive speakership balloting), the Republican Conference will be forced to choose a new speakership nominee, one more amenable to the preferences of the dissident faction (and, presumably, conservatives more generally).

(One aside: Ryun argues that dissident members should simply abstain from voting.  But the rule for electing Speakers has been interpreted differently over time. At times the requirement has been a majority of all members-elect, and at other times it has been a majority of all members present and voting “for a person by name.”  The most recent interpretation has been the latter. For example, in the 105thCongress, Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker with 216 votes, which constituted a majority of all members present and voting for a person by name, but not a majority of all members-elect.  So Ryun’s strategy, to be safe, should direct dissidents to cast their protest votes for one of their own, rather than abstain.)

Is there any precedent for this sort of dissident behavior?  As Charles Stewart and I show in our book Fighting for the Speakership, multi-ballot speakership fights on the House floor were fairly common in the antebellum era.  And some of these fights were quite protracted and required many ballots – for example, 3 weeks and 63 ballots in 1849, 2 months and 133 ballots in 1855-56, and 2 months and 44 ballots in 1859-60.  The cross-cutting issue of slavery drove most of these floor battles, as constituent preferences on slavery (and slavery extension) trumped the bond of party.  With the onset of the Civil War, and the elimination of slavery as a wedge issue, however, protracted speakership balloting virtually disappeared.  Between 1861 and today, only one speakership election has extended beyond a single ballot.  That election, in 1923 at the beginning of the 68th Congress, provides interesting parallels to today.

In the early-1920s, the Republican Party was rent with ideological conflicts, as progressive members from the Midwest often locked horns with the conservative Old Guard.  Progressive Republicans sought a liberalization of House rules, so that progressive legislation that was languishing in committees dominated by Republican “regulars” could be brought to the floor.  The Republican leadership, comprised of regulars, refused.  In response, in 1923, progressive Republicans refused to support the Republican Conference nominee for Speaker, Frederick Gillett (MA), on the floor.

Because the progressives were numerous enough to represent a pivotal coalition between regular Republicans and Democrats, the strategy worked.  Twenty progressive Republicans scattered their votes, which led to 8 inconclusive (deadlocked) speakership ballots over 2 days.  Finally, the Republican leadership caved and met the progressives’ demands, and the progressives swung their votes to Gillett on the ninth ballot and elected him.  Two years later, after the regular Republicans added enough members to constitute a majority of the chamber, the Republican leadership, led by new Speaker Nicholas Longworth (OH), punished the progressives by removing them from important committees and/or stripping them of their chairmanships and committee seniority.  In time, the progressives were chastened and welcomed back into the fold, but only after agreeing to support the Republican Conference choice for Speaker.

Could 2013 end up resembling 1923?  It’s unlikely in absolute terms, but still relatively more likely than in a “normal” speakership election year.  The Tea Party-inclined conservatives in the GOP are certainly numerous enough to scatter their votes in the speakership election and thereby extend the balloting.  And, as Ryun notes, it would only require a fairly small group of them to do this: 16, given certain assumptions.

The parallel to 1923 is a bit strained in that the progressive Republicans were located ideologically between the regular Republicans and the Democrats, while the Tea Party conservatives are located on the extreme end of the Republican distribution.  Therefore, there was the possibility that the progressive Republicans could join with the Democrats to elect a Speaker in 1923 (even though this was never seriously considered), while such a joining of conservative Republicans and Democrats in 2013 has no basis in reality.

Nevertheless, the Tea Party-inclined conservatives in the GOP showed their willingness to buck the leadership in the 112th Congress and stand up for what they (and their constituents) believed in.  Thus, it is not inconceivable that a group of at least 16 conservatives might value the position-taking benefits of extending the speakership balloting – and, by doing so, fight the good fight against “Czar Boehner” – over the potential sanctions that they might face if and when Boehner is elected.  And the probability of such a dissident group forming may increase as January approaches – if the tension and outrage over the committee purge ramps up, for example, and, perhaps more importantly, if Boehner and the bulk of the GOP eventually agree to higher taxes on the wealthy in order to avoid plunging off the fiscal cliff.