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On the Votes Against Boehner

- January 4, 2013

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.

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Nearly a month ago, I authored a Monkey Cage blog post speculating whether a conservative revolt could occur against House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).  Such a revolt occurred today – and it appears that it was a semi-organized affair – but it did not cost Boehner his job, as he was reelected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

While Boehner received 220 of 426 votes cast, he did experience some defections from members of his own conference, as nine Republicans voted for someone else for Speaker.  These defectors included Reps. Steve Pearce (R-NM), Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), and Ted Yoho (R-FL) who voted for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA); Reps. Paul Broun (R-GA) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who voted for exiting House member Allen West (R-FL); Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), who voted for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH); Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), who voted for Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID); Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who voted for Amash; and Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC), who voted for former Comptroller General David Walker.

Amash, Huelskamp, and Jones have been unhappy with Boehner of late, as they were stripped of important committee posts a month ago.  (David Schweikert (AZ), a fourth member punished by Boehner, voted for him for Speaker.)  Bridenstine and Yoho are freshmen, and on their first day in Congress, their initial action was to oppose their party’s speakership candidate.

Huelskamp, quoted in the New York Times, assessed the defections in this way: “I think it was a vote of no confidence.”  He went on to say that “In this town the intimidation was intense.  There were a lot of members who wanted to vote no.”

The potential intimidation that Huelskamp speaks of aside, a more interesting question might be: were the defections historic?

The answer would be “yes,” assessed in terms of majority-party behavior in speakership elections during the modern congressional era.

The appearance of majority-party defections in House speakership votes is exceedingly rare.  The vote for Speaker is considered to be the single greatest expression of party loyalty in the House.  And this has been the norm for some time.  Case in point: political scientist Paul Hasbrouck, writing in 1927, stated: “The vote on the caucus nominee for Speaker has come to be the critical test of party allegiance.”

When was the last time the House witnessed majority-party defections on the vote for Speaker?  The answer is in 1997, at the beginning of the 105th Congress, when Newt Gingrich (R-GA), seeking reelection to the post, saw four Republicans vote for someone else for Speaker.  (In addition, five other Republicans voted “present” rather than back Gingrich).  The result was that Gingrich was reelected Speaker with only 216 votes, less than a majority of the entire chamber.  And the defections would be a harbinger, as Gingrich had to beat back a coup attempt by members of his own party in July of 1997.  He would eventually step down amid new calls for his resignation a little more than a year later, following the party’s disastrous showing in the midterm elections of 1998.

Other than 1997, one must look back all the way to 1925, at the beginning of the 69th Congress, to find another case of majority-party defections on the vote for Speaker.  In that case, thirteen progressive Republicans from the Midwest (mostly from Wisconsin) refused to support the Republican conference nominee, Nicholas Longworth (R-OH).  Longworth responded by removing them from important committees and/or stripping them of their chairmanships and committee seniority and barring them from participating in the conference.  These progressives were only welcomed back into the party when they agreed to support Longworth for Speaker in 1927 – and the lot of them did so, as being excluded from the Republican conference effectively cut them off from the locus of decision making authority.  (Note that Longworth’s strong arm tactic was the impetus for Hasbrouck’s quote earlier.)

Thus, prior to today, there has only been one case – 1997 – of majority-party defection on the vote for Speaker since 1925.

And the ingredients for such majority-party defection have certainly been present since 1925, as contentious politics have often occurred within the majority-party caucus/conference.  Two examples stand out.  First, a regional battle occurred in the Democratic caucus in 1933, at the beginning of the 73rd Congress, as Henry T. Rainey (IL) won the speakership nomination with 166 votes, to 112 for John McDuffie (AL) and 20 for John Rankin (MS).  Second, an ideological battle occurred in the Democratic caucus in 1969, at the beginning of the 91st Congress, as John McCormack (MA) beat back a challenge from younger members on the left and won the speakership nomination with 178 votes, to 58 for Morris Udall (AZ).  In each case, the losers in caucus coalesced around the Democratic nominee on the floor, as there were no defections on the speakership vote.  On the floor, the party bond held.

What do the defections today mean?  This will be the subject of much discussion in the upcoming weeks and months.  But the rejection of Boehner by a portion of his conference, and the rejection of Nancy Pelosi by 19 of her caucus members in 2011 and 5 members today, suggests that we’ve entered a new period of representational politics.  While polarization has become the buzzword in Washington and academic circles, a largely ignored phenomenon is occurring at the edges of congressional partisanship.  A small number of members of both parties are choosing to reject the party bond in favor of constituency interests.  The tension between party and constituency has always been present, of course, and members of Congress have routinely voted against their party’s policy positions when constituency pressure was high.  But that tension has now bled into organizational politics, an area in which the party bond has effectively been absolute for over four generations.  We have not seen partisan fidelity on organizational matters (speakership elections) so weak since the antebellum era, when constituency pressure over slavery challenged and sometimes severed the party bond.

Whether the contemporary intra-party pressure from Blue Dog Democrats and Tea Party Republicans will continue to assail the party bond on organizational matters is anyone’s guess.  But the belief here is that the recent speakership defections are not isolated incidents – going forward, they will become regular events on the opening day of a new Congress.  And if such defections occur when the parties are nearly identical in numbers, we may have the makings of a lengthy speakership battle on the floor.  This happened frequently in the antebellum era.  This would certainly be a new take on “Back to the Future.”