On the face of it they were all—like new Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy—just one step from being House speaker.
But in the past 25 years, something’s gone amiss. Being House majority leader has become anything but a sure step to becoming speaker, as it seemingly had been for much of the earlier decades. Only one of McCarthy’s seven predecessors in the House’s No. 2 leadership perch—John Boehner—has gone on to take the gavel, and even Boehner’s path was not a direct one.
Certainly, some of the specific personalities and their foibles have played a part.
But this shift also coincides with a resurgence of competitive control after what had been four decades of Democratic dominance of the chamber. There’s also been revved-up intra-party warfare and turbulence, and what some analysts and former lawmakers—including former Speaker Dennis Hastert—see as a deteriorating reverence for the committee system and seniority.
On a basic level, lawmakers may simply be getting more impatient with their leaders.
“I think as Congress becomes more partisan, that in the job of majority leader or minority leader you have to be the person who works the middle, to hold members together and pass bills,” said Hastert. But, he added, “if you put enough pressure on people long enough, you wear out your welcome.”
Given the recent pattern, including this year’s ignominious end to Eric Cantor’s majority leadership, McCarthy himself may now be the one battling the odds in his ever becoming speaker.
“Maybe there is a curse of being [majority] leader in this polarized world we live in today,” says William Hoagland, vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, half-jokingly.
Supernatural or not, few predicted Cantor’s defeat in the June Virginia Republican primary for his congressional seat. One the biggest upsets ever in American politics, it also abruptly ended Cantor’s path to becoming speaker. As majority leader, Cantor was often depicted as coveting the gavel, a would-be Brutus to Boehner’s Caesar. Now, he’s stepped down as the No. 2 leader and is about to leave Congress altogether later this month.
Before Cantor, Democrat Steny Hoyer was the lawmaker just a heartbeat away—only to see his party’s control of the House fall under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a result of the 2010 midterm elections and a tea-party-driven Republican takeover. Hoyer’s story may not yet be fully written. But for now, he’s back to being minority whip, still under Pelosi as minority leader, and the clock is ticking on his career.
In fact, since 1989, when Democrat Tom Foley ascended from majority leader to the speakership (his election to that post by colleagues came after an ethics scandal caused Speaker Jim Wright to step down), it has become rare indeed for anyone to duplicate his trajectory from being No. 2 to No. 1. The subsequent majority leaders who did not move up are Democrat Dick Gephardt; Republicans Dick Armey, Tom Delay, and Roy Blunt; Hoyer; and now, Cantor.
And none of the three speakers since Foley other than Boehner—Newt Gingrich, Hastert, and Pelosi—ever served as a majority leader.
It hadn’t always been this way.
Created in 1899, the job of House majority leader as the No. 2 party leadership post had established a clear history as a presumed step to the speakership.
The job itself involves scheduling legislation for floor action, setting the weekly and annual legislative agendas, gauging the sentiment of caucus or conference members, and in more recent years, being a visible messenger for the party’s positions, or even an attack dog. The first four lawmakers with the title did not move up. But starting in 1925 and lasting through 1995, nine of the 13 speakers first had served as majority leaders.
Those 70 years included some memorable speakers who first served as majority leaders, such as Foley, James Wright, Tip O’Neill, Carl Albert, John McCormick, Sam Rayburn, Henry Rainey, Joseph Byrns, William Bankhead, and Nicholas Longworth. So regimented had the succession from majority leader to speaker become at one point that three of them—Byrns, Bankhead, and Rayburn—were chosen to be speaker after their predecessors as speaker died in office, noted Hastert.
But with the end of some 40 years of Democratic Party dominance over the House in the so-called “Gingrich Revolution” that led to the GOP takeover in 1995—and Foley’s own defeat that year for reelection and departure as speaker—so also did such a predictable leadership succession end.
“A lot has changed in three decades, including the paths to leadership and perhaps the types of personalities pursuing leadership,” said Paul Brace, a Rice University political scientist.
Gephardt, who had been the majority leader, instead became the Democrats’ minority leader after Foley’s defeat. And his party never reclaimed the majority before he announced he would not run again for that job in 2002, and Pelosi was chosen to succeed him as minority leader.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, when Gingrich was forced out as speaker after the party’s poor performance in the 1998 elections, his majority leader—Dick Armey—was not the one their GOP colleagues selected as the successor.
In fact, it took three ballots for Armey just to survive that purge and keep even his majority leader’s job. Hastert vaulted from chief deputy whip to speaker—only after Bob Livingston was picked initially, but then refused to claim the post and resigned from Congress, facing his own burgeoning scandal.
“People spend their whole lives aiming to be speaker; my speakership came in two minutes,” Hastert recalls.
Armey eventually would retire in 2003, succeeded by Tom DeLay as majority leader. But then, when DeLay was indicted in 2005 by a Texas grand jury on a conspiracy charge stemming from a campaign finance investigation, he had to temporarily step aside as majority leader—and Roy Blunt was elected majority leader on an interim basis.
By early 2006, with his legal issues still pending, DeLay announced he would not seek to return to his majority leader post. It was then that Boehner—who had been a Republican Conference chair under the Gingrich regime, but lost that leadership spot in 1998—won the support of his colleagues for the majority leader’s post, narrowly outmaneuvering Blunt.
But with the loss of control by Republicans of the House as a result of the midterm elections later in 2006, Pelosi would become speaker, and Boehner had to settle for being chosen as the GOP’s minority leader.
John Murtha, with the backing of Pelosi, tried to become her majority leader, and Hoyer handily defeated him. But Boehner would become the next speaker after Pelosi, not Hoyer, because Republicans in 2011 took back control of the chamber.
Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University, says that the rise in electoral competition for control of the House over the last 25 years “has shaken up the leadership path to the speakership,” along with the personal failings and political miscues of some recent majority leaders.
That previous 40-year-long period of Democratic control prior to 1995, she said, meant that the Democrats never spent time in the minority wilderness and that party leaders were always rewarded for holding onto the majority of the House. And even before the 40-year reign began in 1954 for Democrats, she noted that speakers Bankhead, Rainey, and Byrns were part of an earlier Democratic majority that came in with the 1932 electoral landslide for the party.
Binder and Hastert agree that beyond the increased competitiveness for the control of the House, a factor also undermining the previous pattern is a crumbling committee system. Binder says leadership now plays a much stronger and direct role in setting the agenda and negotiating legislative measures, usurping some of the chairmen’s previous domain.
That, in turn, has undermined the path to power that once had guided ambitious legislators up the ranks to majority leader and then speaker. And it can stir up rank-and-file resentment.
Hastert said Cantor’s reelection loss was an anomaly. But he also predicts that pressures coming from inside and outside of Congress will continue to build on majority leaders, more so than in the past, as they must do their jobs amid diminishing respect for party seniority.
Being in leadership requires building interpersonal relationship with colleagues. But in the end, said Hastert, a party leader will almost always still have to disappoint people more often than make them happy.
Hastert likened it to a sailboat. “Eventually, you get enough barnacles, and you sink,” he said.
Even, that is, if the speakership appears be just on the horizon.
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