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What happened to John Boehner hasn’t happened in a century. No one knows what comes next.

- September 30, 2015

John A. Boehner’s resignation from the House, and thus the speakership, comes in the midst of a leadership struggle not seen for a century. The last time a sitting speaker was challenged by his own party was in 1910, with a revolt against Joseph G. Cannon (R-Ill.).

As scholars of the history and development of the speaker as an elected position in the House (see our book and previous posts here and here), we are interested in how Boehner’s exit will affect the Republican Party and the House. Most observers have asked two questions:

  • Will Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) succeed Boehner as speaker?
  • Will the 40 of the most conservative Republicans who wanted Boehner out try to control the speakership, either now or at the start of the next Congress?

We think another set of questions also should be asked:

  • Is Boehner’s resignation the beginning of the end for the system that has guided the election of the speaker since the Civil War? If so, how will speakers be chosen in the future? And how would that affect the role of Congress in national affairs?

These additional questions are important, because Boehner is stepping down in the shadow of a formal challenge staged within his party. In July, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, filed a motion to declare the speaker’s chair vacant. The motion had been gaining momentum in recent weeks. Boehner’s continued hold on the speaker’s gavel looked to depend on Democratic assistance, either with Democrats voting against the motion (which Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina seemed willing to do) or at least voting “present” when the roll was called. Not since before the Civil War has the speaker’s hold on power required the minority party’s help.

Making the deal: Electing speakers since the Civil War

During the Civil War, a new way to govern the election of speakers emerged, which we have called an “organizational cartel.” It has governed speakership selection ever since.

The organizational cartel system, which we detail at length in our book, is built on two premises. First, the majority party settles the nomination for speaker in the caucus, with all party members expected to fall in line on the floor. Second, in return for their agreement to support the caucus nominee, dissident factions within the majority party are given agreed-upon leadership posts and committee assignments. Once the majority party leadership team is put in place, it is set for the Congress.

This deal holds only for leadership positions. Unlike in a parliamentary system, dissidents aren’t required to vote with the party on policy matters.

Until 2013, the organizational cartel had been seriously challenged only once: in the mid-1920s, when progressive Republicans were feuding with the Republican Old Guard. In 1923, the progressives held out and forced a multi-ballot speakership contest, and shifted their support to the Republican nominee only when their demands were met. However, the party establishment was victorious in the end, as Speaker Nicholas Longworth (R-Ohio) in 1925 stripped the Republican rebels of prime committee assignments and committee seniority. Longworth’s actions — and promises of further punishment — eventually brought the progressives to heel.

After that, the organizational cartel remained unchallenged for nearly a century — until the pushback began against Boehner. In 2013, nine Republicans voted for someone other than Boehner for speaker; in 2015, that number increased to 25. Each time, Boehner secured a first-ballot victory, but his margin of error declined significantly. The organizational cartel had begun to fray.

How bad were contests for speaker before the Civil War? Very bad.

The Republican Party may again be facing a short-term and soon-quelled rebellion, as it did in the 1920s. But it’s hard to believe that the tea party movement is a hiccup that will eventually be purged from the GOP. After the 1920s, progressive Republicans gradually defected to the Democratic Party. That is hardly an option for the tea party.

Instead, the House could go back to electing speakers the way it did before the Civil War. And that wasn’t always pretty.

Thirteen times before the Civil War, the House needed multiple ballots to elect Speakers. In 1849, one speakership battle lasted six weeks and 63 ballots; in 1855-1856, another lasted two months and 133 ballots. Both times, the House seriously considered adjourning Congress and returning two years later, after the next elections. In the end, a speaker was elected only because the House agreed to choose by plurality, not majority, vote.

What made it so hard to elect speakers before the Civil War?

Slavery was the main culprit. Both major parties, the Democrats and Whigs, had pro- and anti-slavery wings. Neither wing ever had a majority of the whole chamber, which meant that speakership nominees had to please both of their party’s factions to be elected. Because of the deep divisions over slavery, it was often impossible, for instance, for a northern Whig to support the election of a southern Whig for speaker, or vice versa. Not surprisingly, the House ended up with a lot of border-state speakers who held ambiguous positions on slavery.

But partisanship was a culprit, too. For almost the entire antebellum period, the north held a majority of House seats. Therefore, in the struggle between pro- and anti-slavery forces, the north theoretically had the advantage — or would have, if northern Whigs and Democrats had been willing to overlook partisan differences. In practice, reaching across the partisan aisle to elect the speaker was even more taboo than compromising within the party over slavery.

What will speaker elections look like, post-Boehner? Here’s one possible — if startling — scenario.

So what will speaker elections look like in the future? Are we headed back to pre-Civil War turmoil, or to something else entirely?

The answer depends on the House Freedom Caucus (HFC). Will it be hard-line, demanding that House leaders refuse to compromise with a Democratic president (whether President Obama or his successor) or even with a Republican-controlled Senate? If the answer is yes, it may become a third force in speakership politics. This third force would feel free to oppose the Republican Party’s speaker nominee on the floor of Congress — leading to a three-cornered election.

Right now, that doesn’t look likely. The HFC isn’t signaling that it will seriously challenge McCarthy’s promotion within the next month, as it seems satisfied with reveling in Boehner’s fall. But McCarthy isn’t going to have a honeymoon. The HFC may rebel against him, too — and a pitched battle over the speakership may occur in 2017.

If the HFC wants to make a full assault on the leadership structure of the House, waiting until the next Congress would be smart. The HFC would have time to challenge establishment Republicans in the primaries and make control of Congress a major issue in the 2016 election. Even if it doesn’t change the number of Republicans in the House — or even if Republicans overall lose a few seats — the HFC could change the temperature of the House Republican Conference by pushing out moderates and bringing in more HFC-style conservatives. If so, it would gain more bargaining power over how the House is run, and even over who would be speaker.

If that happened, the start of the 115th Congress would be the perfect time for the HFC to use its new leverage. Then, it would be unheard of for Democrats to bail out the establishment Republican nominee for speaker.

How would this work? Imagine that in 2017, as the 115th Congress began, the HFC ran its own candidate for speaker against the regular Republican and Democratic nominees. No speaker candidate would receive a majority of the votes cast. If party ratios are the same after the 2016 election as they are right now, we’d see about 195 Democratic votes for the party’s nominee, 195 GOP votes for the mainstream Republican and 45 HFC votes for that faction’s nominee. No candidate would receive the 218 votes needed to be elected speaker.

The House has no rules that would automatically whittle such a three-way race to the top-two candidates, one of whom would then be all but guaranteed a majority. The House would have to keep voting until someone won a majority.

That’s uncharted territory for almost anyone alive today. As we note, it has happened exactly once since 1860. And it’s more likely now than at any time since the Civil War.

How could this end? Two of the three factions would have to make a deal. One faction would get something valuable in exchange for giving the other faction the speakership. That’s the type of horse trading that Americans were used to before the Civil War. It’s hard to imagine us putting up with it in the age of Twitter, blogs, breaking news alerts and 24-hour cable commentary.

To make a bargain that could stop it, the regular Republicans probably would have to compromise with the Freedom Republicans — but at what price? If the Freedom Republicans had bolted the Republican Party because they considered the GOP establishment too willing to compromise with Obama and the Senate, then their leaders would be under intense pressure to prolong the speakership drama, unless they achieved total victory.

If the Freedom Republicans refused to compromise and insisted on electing one of their own as speaker, would regular Republicans and Democrats unite to share power? Could some cross-party coalition of moderates bolt their respective parties and govern from the center? That’s hard to imagine. The policy gulf between even “establishment” Republicans and “moderate” Democrats is greater than that between regular and Freedom Republicans.

One final thing that would hinder the organization of the House under this scenario: If the House were to be deadlocked in electing the speaker at the start of the 115th Congress, the constituents of Freedom Republicans would probably rather have a House unable to legislate than a House led by Republicans who worked together with a (possibly) Democratic president and a Senate bound by the filibuster.

This would be a truly dramatic government shutdown.

Of course, this scenario is speculative, even fantastic. We are not yet willing to say it is likely that the 115th House will deadlocked when it votes for speaker.

But a significant faction of the Republican Party has shown it’s ready to play organizational chicken with its establishment. It may well be willing to go still further.

The problem of being unable to pay off dissatisfied factions

So what about our opening question? Is Boehner’s exit the beginning of the end of the current method for electing House speakers? And if so, what does that mean for the House as an institution?

Since the Civil War, electing a speaker has relied on the majority party buying off dissident factions, either with policy concessions or powerful House positions. That’s getting harder and harder. The tea party rejects politics as usual and compromising deeply held positions. The problem is almost a Zen koan: How can you compromise with a group whose operating premise is no compromise?

But the problem is even harder than that: The payoffs are getting less valuable. Since Newt Gingrich (Ga.) became speaker in 1995, the Republican Party has centralized power. Committees are less important, and so getting handed a plum committee position is less valuable. So, why compromise if there’s no prize for doing so?

Stated differently, the traditional way of dealing with internal party factions was to divvy up institutional positions of power among the various factions. Before Newt, committees and entrepreneurial House members could pursue policy in their domains under a broad party umbrella. No more. Now uniformity is expected and reinforced. Which is precisely why groups like the HFC are forming.

That’s why we see Boehner’s resignation as a signal that House leadership is undergoing a transition in how it is acquired and retained. The old system of keeping fights in the family, making collective decisions, and then having everyone in the party support those decisions publicly is increasingly under stress. Boehner’s resignation may have prevented a decisive break in organizational tradition for now, but it may just be delaying the inevitable.

The intra-Republican rifts are still there, after all, and the fight over how to organize the 115th Congress is still on the horizon.

Jeffery A. Jenkins is a professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and editor in chief of the Journal of Politics. Charles Stewart III is Kenan Sahin distinguished professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.