Kevin McCarthy walks to the House chamber ahead of a vote on October 3, 2023.

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Kevin McCarthy is House speaker no more. After angering GOP hardliners with a spending bill to keep the government funded last week, McCarthy was voted out of power on Tuesday.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, filed what in the House is known as a “motion to vacate” and Democrats declined to rescue McCarthy’s speakership. The Californian lost the support of eight Republicans, becoming the speaker with the third-shortest tenure. He said Tuesday evening he wouldn’t run again.

The first “motion to vacate” vote in more than 100 years and the first to succeed, it leaves the House in chaos.

On Tuesday, just before the vote, I talked to Joseph Postell, a politics professor at Hillsdale College, who has written about the so-called Revolt of 1910. He explained how that instance, featuring House Speaker Joseph Cannon, bears some similarity to the ouster of McCarthy, but is also extremely different since Cannon’s job as speaker was never in doubt.

Excerpts of our conversation, conducted by phone and lightly edited, are below:

What’s the difference between what’s happening now and what happened in 1910?

WOLF: Why is this the first time this happened since 1910?

POSTELL: Strictly speaking, this is the first time the so-called motion to vacate or motion to declare the speakership vacant has been brought up … to get a vote on the floor since 1910. … So in that way, this is only the second time this vote has actually proceeded.

WOLF: But Cannon (unlike McCarthy) was never in danger of losing his job, right?

POSTELL: In fact, Cannon actually called for the vote. He was the one who asked for it. That’s the big difference here is that Cannon brought the vote on himself to make the point that the people who opposed him were playing opportunistically. In that way, he actually did it as a sort of principled show of leadership, whereas, obviously, this has been more forced on to (McCarthy). So that is a significant difference.

The broad outlines of what happens in 1910:

There’s a Republican Party, internally divided between progressives and conservatives. So similar, except the lines of division today are obviously very different.

Joseph Cannon was a conservative speaker who basically thwarted the progressive wing of his party, and that wing really couldn’t move to the Democratic Party because in 1910, the Democratic Party was no more progressive than the Republican Party and, in fact, was probably less progressive. So really, all they could do was fight their party from within.

In 1910, the speaker was basically a czar. So really, the difference here, I would say, is that Cannon was a czar and McCarthy is not.

The three pillars of the speaker’s power in 1910 were the right of recognition, the ability to choose all of the chairs and members of committees, and power over the Rules Committee. The speaker doesn’t really have that kind of power today. So progressives could be completely taken out of the policy process.

George Norris, who was a progressive from Nebraska, introduces this resolution to strip the speaker of full control over the Rules Committee. And then, once that passes – it takes three days for that to actually pass – in the next year, they start to strip the other powers of the speaker as well.

So the 1910 debate, and then the vote to vacate Cannon, is really a critical turning point in the whole history of the House of Representatives. It might be the critical turning point in terms of the power of the speaker.

The end of the czar speaker era

WOLF: Because the speaker lost power?

POSTELL: That was the end of the era of the czar speakers.

WOLF: Have they built it back up in the intervening years? (Former Republican Speaker Newt) Gingrich reclaimed some power and clearly (former Democratic Speaker Nancy) Pelosi exerted more power than a lot of other more recent speakers. Is this a moment for McCarthy to lose some of what’s been built back or something else?

POSTELL: Some of those powers have been returned to the speaker, certainly, over the last 40 years. But my contention is that the speaker hasn’t been returned to any kind of czar power. This episode illustrates that very fact, in part because the motion to vacate is always hanging over the speaker these days. It certainly hung over (John) Boehner’s head and over Paul Ryan’s head, and then McCarthy. I think we are still living in this world of weak speakers, even if some of those powers have been clawed back. That’s a little bit of a point of contention, probably, between me and other scholars.