Between 1855 and 1856, members of the House of Representatives took two months to elect a Speaker of the House — the longest in American history. This past weekend, the Speaker vote made history again as the longest one in more than a century.
Kevin McCarthy won the vote for Speaker of the House on Saturday, following a fraught five-day battle that consisted of 15 rounds of voting and high tensions. The multi-day debacle, of which C-SPAN provided rare coverage, revealed deeper flaws within the Republican party following a historically disappointing election cycle.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives is the political and parliamentary leader of the House of Representatives and second in the line of succession to the presidency. Before members elected McCarthy for the 118th Congress, Nancy Pelosi held the position from 2007-11 and again in 2019-23.
Without a speaker, new members can’t be sworn into office, committee chairs aren’t appointed, and committee affairs — like hiring additional staff and conducting “essential business” — can’t move forward. Effectively, Congress was at a stalemate, considering that legislation must pass the House before making its way to the Senate.
So why did the speaker vote prove embarrassing for American politics? And why, after over a century and a half of tolerable consensus, did the vote chaotically unravel? Well, like President Joe Biden said, “It’s a little embarrassing it’s taking so long, and the way they are dealing with one another,” although McCarthy denied any dysfunction.
The five-day fight for speaker exemplified the limited oversight and power McCarthy holds over the House GOP, catalyzed by 20 “ultraconservative” lawmakers prioritizing their own political gains. By derailing the vote into multiple days of negotiations, the representatives openly challenged the stability of the Republican party. McCarthy must now gain consensus to pass things like government spending bills and federal debt relief with a slim majority over Democrats, and the Speaker vote did nothing to reassure the American people that Republicans are up for the task.
McCarthy said “Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern,” begging the question, shouldn’t lawmakers of any party already know how to govern? By derailing the votes and requiring unnecessary negotiations, what did the outlier representatives have to gain?
The concessions McCarthy made will diminish the speaker’s power, allowing chaos to run rampant even further than it did last week and giving the far-right representatives greater political weight. Possibly one of the most consequential demands McCarthy agreed to is allowing a single lawmaker to force a snap vote at any time to oust the speaker — a rule that he had previously refused to accept.
On Monday, Republicans are set to announce a package of rules for the chamber, which will likely detail many of the compromises McCarthy made to secure his new job.
Maybe next time the speaker vote drags on, we’ll have made it more than 170 years and beat our previous streak — after all, what is history if not a record to beat?