Then, as now, the speaker’s fight was as much about inner House politics – procedural power and legislative prerogative – as it was about ideology. It took a strong and accomplished leader to do what an ordinary person could not accomplish on his own.
The real question, as we head into another round of voting, is this: Who in the new Republican caucus will emerge as a modern-day Nick Longworth and show an offramp to the rebels, restoring some semblance of order within the Republican caucus?
root of the problem Stretching back as far as 1903, when GOP Rep. Joe Cannon of Illinois ascended to the Speakership. Although Cannon strikes a big-tent pose—”I believe in consulting the boys, finding out what most of them want, and then going ahead and doing it,” he said—really. In, “Uncle Joe” ruled the House with an Iron Fist. “His delivery was full of slashing, sledge-hammering, fire and fury,” a reporter new York Times Readers informed. Under Cannon’s leadership, a small number of conservative Republican committee chairs — as well as the rules committee, hand-picked by the speaker and armed with the authority to dictate the terms of debate — determine everything from procedure to legislation. When a constituent wrote to his congressman, asking for a copy of the rules of the House, the member sent back a photo of Speaker Cannon.
A staunch conservative who deeply opposed the increasingly progressive wing of his party, Cannon, a former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, once famously quipped, “You might think my business is to make appropriations, but it is not. It makes them From his powerful position in the Capitol, he obstructed President Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive domestic agenda, effectively ending bills for inheritance and income taxes, workers’ compensation, and the eight-hour workday. He was a Barr went so far as to block the doors of the House chamber to block the delivery of the President’s message.
Republicans lost control of the House in 1910 and did not regain it until 1918. When he did, progressive members of the caucus — and even some conservatives who remembered Cannon’s dictatorial grip on Congress — were eager to make sure the next speaker would democratize. Allow the House and individual members more input on what went into a bill and which bills went to the floor for a vote. The contest for speaker came down to Gillett, whom progressives considered an acceptable compromise, and caucus leader James Mann of Illinois, a close ally of Cannon. When it emerged that powerful meatpacking companies had showered Mann with financial “gifts” in return for his continued opposition to health and safety legislation, the caucus threw its support behind Gillett, who became speaker in 1919.
But Gillett was just a figurehead. Cannon’s “old guard” had enough power to form a “committee of committees”, which empowered committee chairmen to choose the majority leader and majority whip and to appoint members of the standing committees. The new super-committee immediately appointed Mann as majority leader, and for the next four years, the Conservatives ruled the House, with Gillett as speaker in name only.
This was the situation in early 1923. Before November, Republicans lost 77 seats, reducing their once-powerful majority to seven. Progressives now had enough seats to demand meaningful reforms, and they did. Although Gillett was technically one of them, the reform-minded members of the caucus refused to reconvene the House unless they obtained meaningful concessions from Mann and his rearguard allies.
Enter Nick Longworth.
Longworth occupied an unusual position. Although ideologically aligned with the conservative wing of the party, in 1906, as a junior congressman, he married Alice Roosevelt – daughter of TR – in a White House ceremony. As well as his marriage to his famous father-in-law, Alice, who was an outspoken progressive at the time, Longworth enjoyed the trust of most factions within the GOP House caucus. (Few were aware that his opposition to progressive policies had caused a major rift between Nick and Alice; hence his longstanding relationship with the progressive Senator William Borah.) Although a conservative, Longworth was elected to the House of Commons in 1918. had joined progressives calling for a procedural democratization and was disappointed when Mann and his allies thwarted these efforts.
Both sides trusted Longworth, a confidante and mentor, and he was elected majority leader in 1922. It fell to him to compromise. Ultimately, he persuaded a sufficient number of renegades that if they rallied behind Gillett, the House would maintain its current rules for 30 days while a committee studied the progressives’ procedural demands. While there was no guarantee that the House would adopt them, Longworth assured the progressives a series of up-and-down votes on the floor.
The breakaway faction declared in a statement, “We are pleased to see that Mr. Longworth now acknowledges the need for such amendment.” The next day, they threw their votes to Gillett, who won a third term as speaker. One newspaper observed that “Mr. Longworth has distinguished himself by conducting brilliant strategic retreats.
And it was a strategic retreat. Although Longworth rejected the Progressives’ proposals, he was true to his word and allowed the House to vote on them. The Progressives won major procedural reforms, including a discharge petition process, by which a majority of members could bypass conservative committee chairs and take legislation directly to the floor.
Nevertheless, when Longworth himself became speaker in 1925, he punished members who had broken with their party and supported a third-party progressive candidate for president the year before—removing them from committee assignments. was given and even senior Congressmen were sent to the back bench. He used his authority to kill liberal legislation and generally took the side of the old guard.
Longworth’s genius was that he was someone who was not canon. He cultivated friendships with individual members and even developed a warm relationship with the Democratic minority. He was effective because he excelled at relationships.
differences between 1923 and 2023 are obvious. Again, the renegade members were progressives who supported an expanded role for the federal government in promoting the health, safety, and welfare of American citizens. Today, the renegades are ultra-conservatives who aspire to burn the government to the ground.
But the battle over process – who gets to run the House, and how – is very similar. As in 1923, today’s rebels seek to undermine both the speakership and the party’s governing structure, and transfer power to individual members.
The question is: is there an afterlife version of Nick Longworth—an establishment Republican with enough goodwill and political acumen to mount a substantial strategic comeback? Can that person dangle a shiny keychain in front of the renegade, but then reclaim power and privilege for the establishment? Maybe that figure is Steve Scalise or Elise Stefanik. Maybe even Jim Jordan.
We will know the answer soon.
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