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How Nancy Pelosi overcame her opposition and became House speaker. Again.

/ Managing Editor - January 4, 2019

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has once again stepped into the role of speaker of the House, a job she has held before. Before she could claim the gavel, anti-Pelosi factions within the House Democratic caucus forced her to promise to step down after four more years in the position. Nevertheless, she won enough votes to secure election, just as she overcame similar challenges in her races for minority leader in 2011, 2015, and 2017.

Republicans have similarly returned leaders to power even though some members objected, as in 2015, when Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) likewise narrowly secured reelection as House speaker, despite dissent.

Why do the political parties tend to reelect leaders despite persistent opposition from their ranks? Parties make a critical trade-off. They empower strong leaders to advance the party’s agenda. But those leaders are then harder to remove because they can exploit the position’s powers to buy off dissenting party members and keep the job.

This is what my research shows

My research uses game theory to understand why legislators write rules that make their leaders difficult to remove from office. I support my claims by comparing my predictions to patterns of leadership transitions over the past 150 years of congressional history.

Parties face a dilemma when writing rules. If the rules weaken leaders — for example, by taking away their right to nominate members for the Rules Committee — those leaders may not be able to pass important parts of the party’s policy agenda. But if the rules make leaders powerful, it becomes harder for opponents to challenge them, even if a large faction prefers new leaders.

Since the early 1990s, both parties have decided in favor of having powerful leaders who are difficult to remove. A variety of factors shape this decision: increasing ideological unity within each party, rising polarization between the parties, the greater importance of the president in making laws and more intense competition between the parties for control of the chamber in the next election.

How does Pelosi maintain power?

House chamber and Democratic rules grant party leaders influence in virtually every important organizational decision made in the House. Since the November elections, Pelosi has deployed these resources to chip away at the 66-member faction that initially declined to endorse her reelection as speaker. That included creating a leadership position for Rep. Barbara Lee; reviving the House administration subcommittee on elections for Rep. Marcia L. Fudge to chair; and promising the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group within the House that advocates bipartisan cooperation, that she would let moderates share control over which bills and amendments come to the floor for a vote.

Pelosi’s entrenchment echoes that of Boehner (2011-2015): The Ohio Republican used his control over committee assignments and appointments to various leadership offices to co-opt every GOP House member who could plausibly have challenged him for the speakership.

To be sure, Boehner never tamed the fractious members of the tea party movement. He ultimately chose to retire to avoid a government shutdown. Still, no credible challenger ever ran against him, suggesting how firmly Boehner neutralized potential rivals.

Past partisans often preferred weaker leaders

Parties have not always resolved the trade-off in this way. Throughout most of the 20th century, the rules made party leaders weak enough to remove from office, even though this limited their ability to impose party discipline. As a result, leaders did not enjoy the control over committee assignments, the congressional agenda or the choice of committee chairs that they have today.

Only the most exceptional leaders — such as speakers Nicholas Longworth (R), 1925-1931, and Sam Rayburn (D), 1940-1961 — won de facto control over these resources. Party members recognized their talent as leaders and deferred to their judgment on important organizational matters. With leaders deemed less worthy, partisans successfully deposed, sidelined or pressured into retirement speakers such as Charles Halleck (R), 1959-1965; Frederick Gillett (R) 1919-1925; and John McCormack (D) 1962-1971.

This system had serious shortcomings. When party members could not find or agree upon someone who commanded widespread respect within the majority party, the House struggled to pass legislation on important policy priorities. For example, McCormack failed to pass most of the Kennedy legislative program in the 87th Congress, between 1961 and 1963, despite a large Democratic majority.

As parties became more ideologically unified and the competition between the parties became fiercer, this drawback became unacceptable. But a leader who engendered dissent within the party like Pelosi likely would not have survived.

Pelosi’s concessions are unlikely to undermine her power

If Democrats want to change the rules to prevent their leaders from entrenching themselves, they will have to wait until Pelosi leaves office. Since Pelosi was elected House minority leader in 2006, she has used her tremendous power to render harmless the few concessions she has had to make to her party.

Consider the rule changes to which Pelosi reportedly agreed. The changes guarantee bills and amendments that have substantial bipartisan support will be brought to a vote. Pelosi would be obliged to bring to a vote any bill that can attract 290 co-sponsors.

But that is not a significant change. The rules already enable a coalition of 218 legislators to pass a discharge petition that would compel a floor vote. The new rule would hardly make a dent on the leadership’s power to set the agenda. The other promised changes have such large loopholes that Pelosi still has full discretion over what will and will not receive a vote on the House floor.

Likewise, Pelosi’s pledge to retire from the speakership after four more years is only a token concession. In 2022, she will be 82, the oldest person to have ever served as House speaker. She will have served as the top Democrat in the House for 19 years. If a Democrat is elected president in 2020, Pelosi will hold the reins during the typically productive first term and depart just in time to avoid blame for any setbacks during the 2022 midterm election.  And if the Republican experience provides any guidance, Democrats may remove the limit should she have a change of heart.

Christian Fong is a doctoral candidate at the Stanford graduate school of business.

Updated Oct. 9, 2023