Could Boehner be the First Speaker to Lose Job and Win Seats?

The Fix recently wrote about how “A 2015 rebellion against John Boehner would be unprecedented.” In the piece Philip Bump argues that “no speaker has overseen a pick-up of House seats and subsequently lost his job.”

Setting aside problems in closely connecting congressional elections and the speakership election across this period,* this statement really hangs on the definition of “losing the job” in this context. Bump is essentially arguing that aside from losing their majority, Gingrich is the only sitting Speaker to be pushed out of office. That is not entirely true. In fact, most retiring speakers face revolts of varying degrees and momentum at the time of their retirement. No sitting speaker was literally forced out through a vote. But as I argued before, most retire before a revolt comes to fruition.

For example, Speaker Reed stepped down in 1899 amid multiple rumors that many in his caucus were plotting against him. Henderson faced overthrow rumors throughout his tumultuous four year term. McCormack faced serious challenges to his speakership from young liberal Democrats. He and O’Neill actually faced challengers for the top spot in their final term. Though they won those battles it hastened McCormack’s retirement the following year and likely reaffirmed O’Neill’s decision, since he already announced he would retire in 1984 after one final two-year term. And to a lesser extent, many Democrats were frustrated with Albert’s anachronistic post-war (as in WWII) leadership style, though he did not endure overthrow rumors to the same degree.

What set Gingrich apart from his predecessors was timing. He faced the same overthrow rumors leading up to the 1998 Election. The difference between Gingrich and the rest is he chose to wait until after the election to announce his retirement. In sum, “losing the job” through early retirement is hardly unprecedented. In fact, it is more the rule than the exception.

The second part of Bump’s argument states Boehner would be the only speaker to lose his job after his party picked up seats. This isn’t entirely accurate either. The chart below lists House Speakers since 1900 who did not die in office, did not seek higher office, did not lose their majority, and did not resign due to scandal. This narrows the field to only those speakers who had the option to stay and run for speaker again. In the 20th century, this reduces the list to five speakers.

Speakers who did not die in office, seek higher office, or resign due to scandal
Announced Retirement House Seat Change in final Election
Henderson September 1902 +7
McCormack June 1970 +13
Albert June 1976 +0
O’Neill Oct/Nov 1984 – Retired 1987 +4
Gingrich November 1998 -3

Since 1900, three out of the five speakers who had the option to run for another term gained seats in the election following their retirement. In Albert’s last term as Speaker, the parties drew a dead heat. Again, Gingrich is the exception. His party lost three seats and he waited to retire until after the election. For the rest of the Speakers, their party either drew even or won seats. However, their electoral fortunes did not stop them from preemptively stymieing revolts.

In short, both the nature in which Boehner may lose his job and his party’s electoral fortunes before his retirement have plenty of historical precedence. That said if Boehner wants to make his mark on history (some sarcasm), he could wait until after the election to retire. Given the possible change in power in the Senate, it is more likely than not that he waits until after the Election to decide whether to run for another term in the top spot. Regardless of his decision, this is not uncharted territory.

*There are several issues not addressed in this hypothetical: since 1900 speakership elections were internal battles with little national electoral consequence. For most of the 20th century congressional elections were local, not national, affairs. For most of the 20th century individual candidates were more important than national party platforms in congressional elections. The power of the speaker to dictate policy fluctuated enormously in the last 114 years. Therefore, speakers’ ability to pass policies – or take/avoid blame for failed platforms – has also fluctuated. Parties’ internal makeup/coalitions have changed dramatically. In short, congressional elections are just one factor among several that affect choosing a House leader. That said, the increasing national character of congressional elections is more prevalent today than in previous decades.

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Josh Huder is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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