Editor’s Note: Thomas Balcerski is the Ray Allen Billington Visiting Professor of U.S. History at Occidental College and a Long-term Fellow at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. He is the author of “Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King” (Oxford University Press). He tweets about presidential history @tbalcerski. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
It looks like this New Year’s fireworks arrived a few days late to Congress.
Despite holding a numerical majority, the House GOP caucus revealed itself to be intractably divided in the election for speaker of the House this week, with Republican frontrunner Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California failing to receive the needed majority of votes. After six rounds of voting, McCarthy is still falling short of the votes needed. House Democrats, meanwhile, have decisively united around Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York as their party leader.
Not since 1923 has a speaker of the House failed to be elected on the first ballot. But a century later, with razor thin margins in both houses of Congress the new normal, 2023 is already shaping up to be a politically explosive year.
Historically, contested elections for speaker of the House were quite common, with the House deadlocking 13 times before the Civil War. The stalemates typically fell into two categories: those resulting from when the two-party system itself was in flux, and, less commonly but most tellingly for today’s moment, when a vocal minority within the dominant party refused to support the majority’s candidate.
In either instance, a compromise of some sort – whether by choosing a new candidate for speaker or by placating the splinter faction in some significant way – has usually been the result. If history is any guide, we may once again be living a version of one of these two scenarios.
Let’s take a look at three prior examples from the first category, when deadlocked elections speakers resulted from party fissures.
Prior to the Civil War, the future of slavery was the most divisive issue facing the nation. In 1849, the Democrats held the plurality of votes in the House, with 113 representatives to the Whigs’ 108. However, nine members of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party disrupted the balance of power and extended the speaker balloting for more than 20 days. To end the stalemate, the House decided to adopt a plurality rule, which bypassed the need for a majority. After 63 rounds of balloting, the pro-Union Democrat Howell Cobb of Georgia was elected speaker.
In 1855, the race for speaker faced its most serious challenge yet. Without sufficient Democrats or former Whigs to reach a majority, a compromise candidate was found in Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts, a member of the nativist American Party (also called “Know Nothings”). Banks, who became speaker after 133 ballots held over two months, defeated Democratic challenger, William Aiken, Jr., of South Carolina, whose backers hoped that a plurality resolution would once again capture the votes of competing factions. Instead, Banks ultimately defeated Aiken on February 2, 1856.
Four years later, the House of Representatives was again divided, with a majority of Republicans looking to place Rep. John Sherman of Ohio in the chair. The Republicans tried, but failed, to use the plurality rule to end the debate. When a clear majority still had not emerged, Sherman stepped aside and urged Republicans to support Rep. William Pennington, a freshman congressman from New Jersey. After 44 ballots spanning eight weeks, Pennington was elected speaker.
While Kevin McCarthy has expressed his readiness to break the record of 1855-56, there is a second scenario from history that may be more likely – that from the last time the House failed to select a speaker on the first ballot.
In 1923, a progressive faction of western Republicans challenged the selection of the party’s first choice candidate, returning speaker of the House Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts. The progressives blamed the party’s existing orthodoxy on the results of the 1922 midterm election, in which Republicans had seen their majority reduced, and wanted to change the House’s rules to allow for more legislation to reach the floor.
After deadlocking for eight ballots, an emergency meeting was held between the Republican majority leader Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, and the radical faction, represented by Rep. John M. Nelson of Wisconsin, Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia of New York and Rep. Roy O. Woodruff of Michigan. As a result, the House agreed to a number of procedural reforms and Gillett became speaker.
The tolerance for the progressive Republicans was short-lived, however. In 1925, after several progressive Republicans refused to support then-President Calvin Coolidge’s reelection bid, Longworth, who was then speaker, punished them by stripping them of their seniority within House committees. For all intents and purposes, the Republican Party had been purged of its liberal faction.
What does this long, strange history of contested speaker elections tell us about today’s divides? In the speaker contests of the 1850s, the issue of the extension of slavery in the territories was the crucial factor that divided the two major parties. While Republicans did not get their first choice for speaker, they nevertheless selected a member of their own party and lived to fight another day against the Slave Power.
Today, Republicans in the House may face a similar set of calculations. A large majority of Republicans want McCarthy, who has been a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, but if the prolonged battles of the 1850s are any guide, they would do better to select someone who is acceptable to the entirety of their caucus. Otherwise, they risk prolonging the balloting for days, weeks or even months.
Although the politics have changed, similar dynamics are also at work in 2023 as they were in 1923. Today, a vocal conservative minority is trying to assert its power within the Republican majority and possibly emerge stronger for it. This fringe group may be dissatisfied with McCarthy, but they will need to decide whether they would rather achieve their aims under Republican leadership than remain irreconcilables unwilling to participate in governing.
In 1923, the progressive Republicans were unwilling to abandon their Republican affiliation. Instead, they worked within the party structure to attempt to achieve the reforms that they desired. However, they remained a vulnerable minority whose power was eventually limited. Such may well be the fate of the Republican Party’s entire agenda if they cannot find consensus in the coming days.
Whatever the final number of ballots necessary to elect a speaker of the House in 2023, history tells us to get ready for a prolonged battle with ill-well rancor all around. In today’s politics, Americans have sadly come to expect nothing less.