When Wisconsin Stalled the Choice of a U.S. House Speaker

The last time a speaker election took more than one ballot, in 1923, the GOP holdouts were Progressive allies of Sen. “Fighting Bob” La Follette

Wisconsin was at the center of the action when congressional renegades forced multiple ballots in the election for speaker of the House, dragging out the fight as the rebel Republicans demanded changes in the chamber’s rules.

That’s not exactly what happened in Washington earlier this month. But it does describe the scene at the U.S. Capitol a century earlier, the last time the House had to vote more than once to choose a speaker.

The 1923 battle over the speaker’s gavel and the 2023 conflict that ended in California GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s victory have many similarities – and some significant differences – says political historian Eric Ostermeier, founder of the nonpartisan website Smart Politics.

Chief among those differences is that the holdout faction 100 years ago came not from the Republicans’ right wing but from its left – the Progressives aligned with Wisconsin’s legendary Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. They were dubbed “La Follette insurgents” by the Washington Post and “radicals” by the New York Times

Then and now, Republicans held a relatively narrow House majority after a disappointing midterm election performance. In 1922, amid a recession and widespread labor unrest halfway into GOP President Warren Harding’s term, his fellow Republicans lost 75 House seats and six Senate seats. That cut the GOP caucus in the lower chamber to 225, compared with 207 Democrats and three minor-party and independent representatives.


 

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In 2022, halfway into Democratic President Joe Biden’s term, Republicans retook the House but fell short of their goals, dragged down by the unpopularity of former President Donald Trump. They wound up with 222 seats to the Democrats’ 212, with one vacancy.

Unlike the current Congress, early 20th-century lawmakers typically didn’t convene until December of the year after they were elected, says Ostermeier, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. By the time the House met in December 1923, Harding was dead and his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, had replaced him in the Oval Office.

Massachusetts GOP Rep. Frederick Gillett, a 28-year veteran of the House, was seeking his third term as speaker. Like McCarthy, Gillett needed a majority of those voting for a candidate, meaning that representatives who were absent or voting “present” reduced the number necessary to win. Also like McCarthy, Gillett had little room for error if more than a few members of his party voted for someone else.

Then and now, that calculus empowered a minority faction to hold out for concessions. In 1923, the faction was the Progressives, then the most liberal wing of the Republican Party, at a time when Republicans were generally considered more liberal than Democrats.

The Progressive movement evolved in response to the concentration of economic power in large corporations and of political power in big-city party machines. Progressives championed expansion of social services; establishment of child labor laws and workers compensation; and regulation of railroads and public utilities. They also pioneered direct election of U.S. senators (previously appointed by state legislatures); primaries to choose party nominees (instead of party bosses picking their favorites); recall elections; initiatives (allowing citizens to petition to vote directly on specific laws) and other types of referendums; and professional city managers.

In the Midwest, La Follette emerged as a key Progressive leader, serving as Wisconsin’s governor from 1901 to 1906 and as a U.S. senator from 1906 to 1925. He came up with the Wisconsin Idea, which holds that government is most effective when it’s controlled by voters – not special interests – and guided by expert advice. This led to the creation of the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau, which researches issues for lawmakers, and to the involvement of University of Wisconsin faculty in helping shape public policy.

La Follette also organized a Progressive third party that became the vehicle for former President Teddy Roosevelt’s unsuccessful comeback bid for the White House in 1912. But La Follette and some of his followers were still serving as Republicans in Congress in 1923.

Those Progressives were diametrically opposed to the Republicans who stalled McCarthy’s bid for speaker. The 2023 holdouts are on the far right of an increasingly conservative party.

Of the 20 representatives who opposed McCarthy on most ballots, 19 are associated with the right-wing Freedom Caucus; 17 were endorsed by Trump (although they ignored his pleas to back McCarthy); 14 of the 15 then in office voted against certifying Biden’s 2020 victory; 12 have explicitly denied that Biden won; and nearly all have cast doubt in some way on the 2020 election, the New York Times reported.

In 1923, Progressives from the Upper Midwest rallied behind Racine’s Rep. Henry Cooper, the dean of the Wisconsin delegation. It was the fourth time that Cooper ran for speaker, Ostermeier wrote on Smart Politics. Cooper had received eight votes in 1909, 16 in 1911 and just four in 1913. But none of those previous challenges delayed the election of Gillett’s predecessors, Illinois Republican Joseph Cannon and Missouri Democrat James “Champ” Clark, past one ballot, because their margins of victory weren’t that narrow.

This time, Cooper picked up 17 votes on the first ballot, mostly from Progressives. He won the support of nine of the 11 members of his home state delegation; six Minnesota representatives, including one member of that state’s leftist Farmer-Labor party and one independent who would later join that party; one North Dakota congressman; and one notable New Yorker: then-Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia, the Big Apple’s future mayor and airport namesake.

Cooper himself voted present (Ostermeier isn’t sure if it was a rule or a custom not to vote for oneself), as did the chamber’s lone Socialist, Milwaukee’s Rep. Victor Berger

Another five Republican congressmen – three from Illinois and two from Michigan – voted for Illinois GOP Rep. Martin Madden, who himself voted for Gillett. Although Madden wasn’t a Progressive, Ostermeier says this group may have coordinated its efforts with Cooper’s backers.

That left Gillett with 197 votes to 195 for Democratic leader Finis Garrett of Tennessee, with four voting present and the rest absent. Those numbers didn’t change much over the next seven ballots.

By comparison, 20 Republicans voted for someone other than McCarthy on the first ballot on Jan. 3 of this year, leaving him with just 203 votes to 212 for the Democrats’ leader, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.

The holdouts united behind Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan – himself a McCarthy supporter – on the next two ballots, with Florida Rep. Byron Donald switching his vote from McCarthy on the third ballot. Donald received all 21 holdout votes on the fourth through sixth ballots, while another Republican started voting “present.” The rebels divided their votes among several candidates on the seventh through 11th ballots, with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz voting three times for Trump (because the Constitution doesn’t require the speaker to be a member of the House).

In both 1923 and 2023, the renegade factions sought concessions focused at least partly on House rules, targeting the power of party leaders. The Progressives sought to empower back-benchers and reduce the power of the majority Stalwart faction’s leaders and committee chairs.

Among the rule changes sought by McCarthy’s opponents was a return to the days when any House member could force a vote on replacing the speaker – the “motion to vacate” that Republicans used to oust then-Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and replace him with Janesville’s then-Rep. Paul Ryan in 2015. Democrats had changed that rule when California Rep. Nancy Pelosi succeeded Ryan in 2019.

Ostermeier says Cooper’s backers, led by Madison’s Rep. John Nelson, insisted they weren’t seeking anything other than rule changes, although the New York Times decried their “insatiable passion for more places on the committees.” By contrast, McCarthy’s opponents demanded seats on the powerful House Rules Committee, which decides which bills reach the floor; how long they can be debated, if at all; and whether and how they can be amended.

Then and now, the standoff gave rise to speculation that some Republicans might join forces with Democrats to elect a moderate speaker. Democratic elder statesman William Jennings

Bryan, a former presidential candidate, urged such a deal in 1923, Ostermeier says. This year, rumors circulated that anti-Trump Republicans like former Michigan Rep. Fred Upton or former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney could be compromise candidates.

But both times, Democrats stayed out of the game, preferring to “let the dysfunction shine on the other side of the aisle,” Ostermeier says.

Both times, Republican leaders eventually yielded to the holdouts’ demands. In 1923, House Majority Leader Nicholas Longworth of Ohio promised the Progressives a vote on their proposed rule changes, and Gillett won on the ninth ballot, with 215 votes of 414 members present and voting for a candidate.

McCarthy’s Jan. 6 victory was somewhat messier. He agreed to enough concessions to win over most of the right-wing bloc on the 12th ballot, but negotiations continued until the 15th ballot, when the last six holdouts voted “present” and he won with 216 of 428 members present and voting for a candidate. McCarthy has not disclosed the full scope of his concessions.

The political fortunes of the key players in the 1923 speaker fight soon diverged. In 1924, La Follette ran for president on the third-party Progressive ticket, in an unsuccessful challenge to Coolidge. Gillett won a Senate seat in the same election.

And Cooper attracted 13 votes in his fifth and last losing bid for speaker in 1925 – but this time, Gillett’s successor Longworth retaliated by stripping Cooper’s supporters of prime committee assignments.

However, southeastern Wisconsin eventually came out on top. When Ryan became the first Badger State congressman to win the speakership in 2015, he was representing that decade’s version of the same 1st Congressional District that had elected Cooper in the previous century.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.