The Messiest Speakership Battle in History

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Josh Zeitz has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University and is the author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. He is currently writing a book on the making of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.


Related Link The House May Be Too Divided To Elect A New Speaker. If So, Here’s What Happens Next.

When John Boehner exits stage right next month, he will leave behind a deeply divided House Republican caucus, torn between a shrinking Reaganite core—trenchantly conservative but cognizant of its responsibility to legislate, govern and compromise—and a growing Tea Party wing that wants to “burn the House down,” in the sharp assessment of Rep. Bill Flores of Texas, who chairs the Republican Study Committee.

But more than the future of the GOP hangs in the balance. It’s not clear that the Republican-led House of Representatives will actually be capable of electing a new Speaker—a constitutional position that stands just behind the vice presidency in the line of succession, and which requires a candidate to win a majority—not a plurality—of all votes cast.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Congress faced a deadlock over a leadership election. In 1855 a fractious House of Representatives took two almost two months to choose a new Speaker. We’re a far cry from 1855, when an incoming congressional majority -- the nascent Republican Party --came to Washington determined to stop the spread of chattel slavery. At the time, this anti-slavery coalition was still provisional and ad hoc; the chief impediment to electing a Speaker was reconciling its many factions. And yet today, 160 years later, the now-seasoned Republican Party seems similarly fractured—hostage to a strident minority whom even Eric Cantor, the former GOP majority leader, scores for their unbending refusal to embrace the hard work of “incremental progress, winning hearts and minds before winning the vote—the kind of governance Ronald Reagan perfected.” Which begs the question: Is the Grand Old Party unified enough to lead, or is it reverting to the schismatic and disunited state of its earliest days?

To understand why the House was deadlocked in late 1855, it’s necessary to wind the clock back a year.

In the spring of 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a deeply divisive measure that organized the Kansas and Nebraska territories—territories that the United States had acquired decades earlier as part of the Louisiana Purchase—in preparation for the construction of a Midwestern link to a planned trans-continental railroad. At the insistence of Southern senators (most of them, Democrats)who held the bill hostage, Sen. Stephen Douglas— the Illinois Democrat who, as chairman of the Committee on Territories, was the bill’s chief author—inserted a “popular sovereignty” provision allowing residents of the two territories to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery. Douglas privately admitted that this one detail would “raise a hell of a storm,” but he underestimated just how quickly that storm would gather force. Kansas and Nebraska were part of the Louisiana Purchase and consequently fell under the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery above the 36’30” parallel. ...






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