The Speaker of the House depended on a slim majority to remain in power. A small group of dissident members of his own caucus grew tired of what they perceived as unkept promises and became increasingly rebellious. Finally, a critical point was reached, and the dissidents joined with members of the minority party to force a vote on a motion to vacate the Chair and remove the Speaker from his position.
It happened this week in Washington, and it has happened before. I was in the middle of a similar Speakership battle myself once. There are similarities and differences between that story and the recent drama in the US House of Representatives.
In 1988, I was a young staffer for a conservative Democratic member of the California Assembly in Sacramento. Unlike today, the political tone of the state then was much more centrist with degrees of progressive, moderate, and conservative Democrats and Republicans in all regions. Reflecting that dynamic, Assembly Democrats held a relatively narrow majority of 44 seats to 36 for Republicans.
During the 1980’s, the lower house was under the control of the legendary Speaker Willie Brown (D), the “Ayatollah of the Assembly”. The Speaker, as he will forever be known, is the smartest, toughest and at times the most ruthless politician I’ve ever known (I’ve known a lot). A key to his power was keeping his caucus satisfied, most of whom leaned to the left.
My boss and four fellow Democrats leaned to the right. Voting their beliefs (and reflecting their districts) sometimes meant voting against their own caucus position on some issues, usually relating to crime or business matters. This created so much internal friction that ultimately the Speaker brought the hammer down, stripping the five of their committees, moving them to tiny offices, killing all their bills, and firing all their staff except for a couple that were too stubborn to go (like me). That all had the opposite effect as intended.
LEGISLATURE 101 – if you seek control in the House, know the rules and know how to count.
Our five Democrats banded together with minority Republicans to create a voting bloc that controlled the Assembly by one vote. This was enough to amend or defeat legislation on the floor, and call bills out of committee that had been killed on party line votes. Ultimately, relations became so bad that we agreed to vote with the other party to vacate the Chair and remove the Speaker. It was an ugly, bitter year during which many close friendships were lost.
This history came to my mind as we watched the vote to remove House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The situations are similar, a small group of disaffected members challenge their own leader and with the support of the opposing party, made their move.
But as I write this, I see a big difference between then and now.
Our small group (which became known as the Gang of Five) had a succession plan. Once the Chair was vacant, we would immediately join with the minority party to elect my boss (a Democrat) as Speaker. As part of the bargain, we pledged to give more power to the minority in the form of committee chairs and we would ensure that their legislative priorities at least got a fair hearing. The process would continue without lengthy delay.
I don’t see a plan like that in Washington today. My concern is that chaos has been created for the sake of creating chaos. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing”. While I agree with the President on this, I like to think he would believe some forethought about what comes after that rebellion might be prudent.
The House is now likely to enter a period of confusion, power struggles, grandstanding, and inactivity. Like a little rebellion, a little inactivity now and then is a good thing. But at some point, budgets need to be passed, soldiers need to be paid, borders need attention.
Explosions are usually flashy and loud, reconstruction less interesting. But if no one is ready to fill it, sometimes you are left with just a hole.
These views are my own and do not reflect those of Prism Group and our team members.