Why It’s So Hard to Move Up From Majority Leader to Speaker

The House’s No. 2 job is no longer a clear step to No. 1.

House Republican Whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), leaves a meeting of the House Republican conference June 18, 2014 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. McCarthy is the favorite to be elected to the position of House Majority Leader tomorrow to replace Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) who was defeated in primary race last week. 
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Aug. 7, 2014, 1 a.m.

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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