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The First Motion To Vacate The House Speaker's Chair

[ Posted Monday, October 2nd, 2023 – 15:59 UTC ]

There are a lot of momentous things going on in the political world this week -- including Donald Trump sitting inside a courtroom facing a lawsuit -- but what is going on in the House of Representatives right now somehow seems more important than watching this particular episode of "The Trump Show." Because we may see a move this week that hasn't been made in over 110 years, and (win or lose) it is going to shift the power structure in the House from this point on in some way or another, even if nobody's got a clue which direction it will shift in.

The "motion to vacate the chair" (or as some have now dubbed it: the "M.T.V.") has only been used once in the House's existence. It was created by and first used against Speaker Joseph Cannon, in 1910 (he's now got a House office building named after him, since he was a very powerful and historic speaker). The situation at the time wasn't a perfect parallel to what's going on now, but there were indeed similarities.

One big difference was that the speaker was incredibly strong and held a vise-grip over most of his party (one similarity: he was a Republican). In fact, "Uncle Joe" (as he was called) and other speakers of the era was referred to as "czars" -- something nobody would ever call Kevin McCarthy (at least not with a straight face). This was the entire point of contention, in fact. A progressive Republican -- George Norris of Nebraska -- wanted to challenge the speaker's power and break the Republican Party's iron grip on what went on in the chamber. Speakers had even more power back then than they do now, and so being a member of a faction of the majority didn't do you much good, since the speaker controlled pretty much everything that went on in the House so absolutely. Norris was such a faction member.

So you can see there is at least some similarity with today's situation. A radical faction of Republicans is annoyed at the power of their own speaker, while the speaker commands the loyalty of what might be called the "establishment Republicans." Democrats were in the minority, and could thus only toss out gibes from the sidelines. Progressives were pushing for more direct democracy (such as the voters choosing candidates in primaries and directly electing their senators), to break the iron-fisted control of the central party apparatus.

How it all came to a head is pretty hilarious:

[Representative George] Norris was the one to weaken party control over Congress. He bided his time for years until the opportunity finally arrived: St. Patrick's Day, 1910. [Speaker Joseph] Cannon was present in the House, but many of the Republican "regulars," as the defenders of party loyalty were called, were out, celebrating the day in the streets of Washington. Norris saw that enough of them were absent to swing a vote on the Speaker's powers in favor of Cannon's opponents. Progressive Republicans, with the support of Democrats who relished the opportunity to embarrass Cannon, could finally end the reign of "czar" Speakers.

Norris rose to introduce his resolution as the celebrations flowed outside the Capitol. He moved to take the Speaker off the Rules Committee and strip him of his power to appoint the Committee's members. This would put the entire House, not the party leaders, in charge of deciding which bills were up for debate and passage. But the difficulty was getting the Speaker to agree even to debate Norris's resolution. Because the Speaker controlled the flow of business in the House, he could simply refuse to entertain Norris's motion. Norris contended that his resolution was privileged under the Constitution and so took precedence over other matters according to the rules of the House. Cannon had to make a ruling on Norris's contention, so he allowed a lengthy debate to take place, stalling while his supporters rushed into the streets and barrooms to find reinforcements.

The debate over whether Norris's resolution was out of order lasted through the night. Shortly after midnight, in support of the resolution, the House voted to order the Sergeant-at-Arms to take absent members into custody and bring them back to the Capitol to produce a quorum and continue the debate. In the middle of the night, the Sergeant-at-Arms and his deputies traversed the city, cajoling a handful of members to return voluntarily but arresting none. Some members sang together on the floor, passing the time as they waited for Cannon's ruling. It was chaos. As Cannon himself later admitted, "The fact is, the House for the time being had gone a little mad and was no longer governed by reason." All the while, representatives from both camps were meeting privately to agree to a compromise, but no deal could be reached.

The spectacle continued into the following morning. More than 24 hours passed as the House sat in continuous session, debating the propriety of Norris's notion. At 2 p.m. on March 18, the House finally voted to take a brief recess. When that was over, Cannon announced that he was prepared to decide whether Norris's resolution was, indeed, privileged. But abruptly, some members called for another recess until the next day, and their motion passed. The clash between the party regulars and the insurgents would have to wait one more day.

March 19 came and with it Cannon's decision. Cannon determined that Norris's resolution was not privileged and that only the Rules Committee, which he controlled, could originate changes to House rules. Norris and his allies immediately appealed Cannon's ruling to the entire House, where Cannon was overruled by a vote of 182 to 163. The Norris resolution was then put to a vote, and it passed by a 191 to 156 margin. The Speaker would no longer control the Rules Committee, one of the cornerstones of his authority.

In other words, imagine Matt Gaetz and Kevin McCarthy battling it all out in the middle of the night... on St. Patrick's Day... with half the House drunk as skunks. And you thought today's House was a circus!

Being that it was debated on the House floor, there is a record of it all. From the Congressional Record, 61st Congress, 2nd Session, March 17-18, 1910:

Mr. [WILLIAM A.] REEDER. I request the chair to see that the gentleman does not interrupt me at present. [Laughter.] I will wait for order on the Democratic side. [Renewed laughter.]...

I think that every rule of fair dealing -- I wish to emphasize that fair dealing -- demands that members sent here by the votes of a party shall not betray that party into the hands of their enemies. But that they shall deal with their party on the majority-rule principle.

The Republicans should run this government for the two years for which they were elected; and the majority of the Republicans should determine what that policy shall be. In my judgment, the minority of that party should not take any unfair and unjust methods to set aside the will of the majority, because the people have determined they want that rule for these two years, and by our success or failure we are to be judged.

A MEMBER. That is right.

Mr. REEDER. Every move the Democrats help the insurgents to make which is contrary to the judgment of a majority of the Republicans of this House betrays the people's will that the Republicans shall rule during this term of Congress.... I am inclined to think that the rules --

Mr. [J. EDWIN] ELLERBE. The gentleman says he is inclined to think! That is a wonderful inclination. [Democratic laughter.]

Mr. REEDER. When you gentleman get tired, I will proceed.

Pretty snarky! But when all was said and done -- days later -- Norris won. He stripped Speaker Cannon of some major powers he had been using. Some of these powers later returned to the office (today, the speaker does indeed again determine who sits on the Rules Committee), but mostly in diminished fashion.

Cannon was pretty angry about all of this (which is entirely understandable), so he came up with his own way of measuring strength in the chamber: a vote of "no confidence." That's what most of the rest of the world calls it (with their parliamentary systems), but in the House it was labelled a "motion to vacate the chair." Here's how it all played out:

Cannon was not surprised at the outcome, but he had prepared one last move to save face. In a dramatic speech, he rose to defend himself and his leadership of the House. He refused to apologize for any wrongdoing and declared that because no coherent Republican majority existed in the House, he would entertain a motion to overthrow himself and select a new Speaker. This was a direct challenge to Republican insurgents such as Norris. Would they vote for the Democrats' candidate for Speaker, giving control to the other party, or would they support Cannon? They did not have the votes to elect one of their own.

The next day, a Democrat from Texas, Albert Burleson, took Cannon's bait and introduced a motion to vacate the Speakership. Norris immediately saw the trap and called for the House to adjourn. Cannon refused to allow it, since Burleson's motion had already been introduced, and once again the House descended into chaos. This time, however, Cannon prevailed, and Burleson's motion to strip him of the Speakership failed, 192 to 155. Cannon had managed to reassert at least some measure of his power.

That was the first and only time such a motion has ever been used in the House of Representatives. Again, not a perfect parallel, but with plenty of similarities.

However, unlike what happened in 1910, when Democrats gleefully joined in with the radical Republican faction trying to oust the speaker, this time around it will be the Democrats who truly determine Kevin McCarthy's fate. Which is why nobody knows what will happen, since Hakeem Jeffries is holding his cards pretty close to the vest right now.

If the Democrats do allow McCarthy to continue as speaker, will Jeffries demand some sort of pound of flesh from him? Some sort of power-sharing arrangement, or changing some specific things which have been particularly annoying to them since McCarthy took control? If this actually does happen -- if McCarthy's got to bargain with Democrats to stay in power -- it will only serve to weaken him within his own caucus (where he will, no doubt, be called a traitor to his party, and worse).

If Democrats somehow stay out of the fray and put the onus on the House Republicans to solve their own spat, McCarthy could actually come out stronger, though -- a consideration Matt Gaetz may already be considering (which is why it'll be interesting to see if Gaetz follows through or not on his promise to file the M.T.V.). Say all the Democrats decide, as a bloc, to vote: "Present." This would mean all McCarthy would need would be a majority of his own caucus to remain in power. Say, in this circumstance, the number voting against him is only the bare minimum of hotheaded nihilist Republicans (perhaps only 20 or so, if that). If this is the case -- if McCarthy gets 190 or 200 votes supporting him -- then it could be precisely what has been needed to break the swamp fever that has allowed the MAGA extremists' tail to wag McCarthy's dog (if that isn't too mangled a metaphor). For example, if McCarthy knew full well he could count on exactly 200 Republicans supporting him, then for all future bills he'd only have to convince 18 Democrats to back them in order to pass legislation. This wouldn't be too heavy a lift, as you can see, for compromise budgets and other reality-based bills.

If this is how it all plays out, then McCarthy will be set free. He can then completely ignore the hotheads whenever serious legislation is necessary. Oh, sure, he can still allow them free rein to hold all the committee hearings on all the conspiracy theories they like, but McCarthy will know that they will no longer have the power to threaten him when he needs to talk to some Democrats to pass important bills. Which could dramatically improve things in this Congress.

Again, nobody knows how it will all shake out. Gaetz might back down, although it'd be almost impossible for him to save face with the MAGA crowd if he did so. If Donald Trump starts egging House Republicans to dethrone McCarthy, that could add external pressure to the actual vote. A lot of things could happen this week, in other words. Which is why I thought it was germane to take a look at history today, since the motion being considered right now has only ever been used once before.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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