What Can We Learn from the 1923 Speaker Fight?Roundup
tags: Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, House of Representatives, Congressional history
Christopher McKnight Nichols is professor of history and Woody Hayes Chair in national security studies at The Ohio State University. He is author of Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age and editor and author of Rethinking American Grand Strategy and Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations: New Histories (Columbia UP, 2022).
Maxine Wagenhoffer is a PhD candidate in modern U.S. History at The Ohio State University. Her dissertation focuses on the intersections of gender, politics and American celebrity culture through the lens of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) finally secured the House speakership, on the 15th ballot, after four days of negotiations and numerous concessions to the rebellious right flank of his caucus.
The process played out as an eerie echo of the internecine Republican fight over the speakership in 1923. That year, a narrow GOP majority took three days and nine rounds of voting before it coalesced around Frederick H. Gillett (R-Mass.) who, like McCarthy, had been the leading GOP vote-getter throughout the process. This happened only after negotiations led by Nicholas Longworth (R-Ohio) produced an acceptable bargain on rule changes.
Comparing the two moments is useful, not so much for the many similarities they reveal, but for the differences. Unlike a century ago, the recent speaker battle exposed a weak GOP leadership and a dysfunctional caucus, alongside the decaying power of establishment politics within parties, in part thanks to how today’s media encourages sensationalism and political bomb-throwing.
In particular, our political system does not reward political compromise — especially for those on the right. That makes bipartisanship and coalition-formation (within and across the aisle) especially difficult. This moment represents the culmination of a decade-long trend in which the GOP lacks a clear and effective strategy to deal with internal opposition from the fringes of its party.
As was the case last week, the GOP experienced significant fluctuations leading up to the speaker vote 100 years ago.
The party had anticipated retaining its large majority in the 1922 midterm elections. But the economy wasn’t booming as Republicans had promised in 1920; and so, as they often do in midterms, voters rejected members of the party holding the White House. Despite losses, however, Republicans maintained narrowed majorities in both the House and Senate.
Then in August 1923, Warren G. Harding died, elevating Calvin Coolidge to the presidency and creating more uncertainty.
And the GOP remained split between conservatives like Coolidge and a self-proclaimed progressive wing, which in the House, wanted to “modernize” the chamber’s rules. These Republicans, such as Wisconsin’s Henry Allen Cooper and New York’s Fiorello H. La Guardia, were actually to the left of most Democrats politically, and while they might not have controlled the party, they had enough clout to complicate matters for establishment Republicans like Gillett and Longworth, who emerged as the party’s floor leader.