House GOP rebels recall a distant era when dissidents rose up against 'Czar Cannon'

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Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) speaks on the House Floor with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), about the 14th Round of Voting for Speaker on January 6, 2023 at the U.S. Capitol.

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Rep. Matt Gaetz, R. Florida, speaks on the House Floor with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R. California) about the 14th voting round for speaker, which will take place on January 6, 2023 at the U.S. Capitol.

The Washington Post via Getty Images

For those who have been following the ongoing crisis on Capitol Hill, where the House Republican majority is threatening to force the government to shut down, “the motion to vacate the chair” will be familiar.

Vacating the chair might sound as simple as standing up. In the specialized language used in congressional procedure, standing up against the presiding official means that you are challenging the right of the officer to preside. You can do this by threatening the officer to be replaced. The phrase and procedure were used earlier this year during the January melee which led to the appointment of Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The rebels of the House Freedom Caucus refused to let the California Republican, who had been their nominal leader for the past four years, take “the big givel” until they were promised the chance to remove him. Many veterans of Capitol Hill called it “suicide.” No speaker would permit that. McCarthy assured his skeptics, before he won the job on the 15

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vote, that they could use the tool as they wanted. Matt Gaetz, a Republican Representative from Florida, said to FOX News’ Chad Pergram that the motion to vacate “was not something we put on a bookcase to admire…we intend to use” it. Gaetz said he will use the motion until it is successful. Gaetz warned earlier that McCarthy’s attempt to introduce a temporary, stopgap measure to prevent a shutdown of the government at month-end would be met with a motion for immediate vacature. He said it was a “shot-and-chaser” situation. Such talk was heard all through the session. McCarthy, for example, was in negotiations with Senate leaders and Biden about an increase to the national debt limit. In recent years, lifting the lid was a routine task. However, it became a crisis when some members of the House were willing to hold it hostage as part of negotiations over spending.

McCarthy was able to outmaneuver this group on the debt limit, which had been raised in the spring for two years. The resistance promised to pay back in the fall. McCarthy’s current refusal to support McCarthy leaves him with two options: yield to the hard-core within his party or try to find a way to get at least some votes from Democrats. It was clear that the latter option risked a motion to vacate the chair.

McCarthy thought he had the votes for a stopgap spending measure to keep the government open past Sept. 30. It became clear this week that he didn’t. He met with Gaetz late on Thursday to discuss a possible solution. At the end of last week, online media asked bluntly who is in charge. Politico’s headline on Friday was “How Matt Gaetz Sewed the House.” Speakers have struggled for years to control their most aggressive ideologues, especially when the margin of their majority is narrow. McCarthy’s has a low single-digit margin. The speaker thought that he had rounded up the last strays on a procedural test vote he held this week. When it was time to vote, two previously committed members walked out.

It may be irresistible to add a few Democrats to reach a majority, but it’s a dangerous move. “Historical roots in party divides and divisive personalitiesA motion to vacate last darkened the horizon in 2015, when House hardliners used it against Speaker John Boehner in another budget stalemate. Boehner became speaker in 2010 with the surge of “Tea Party’ strength by the GOP that recaptured majority control of the House. Boehner was able to reach this position after years of patience and persistence. But by the fall 2015, he had given up. Boehner resigned when intra-party rivals started talking about leaving the chair. He said he didn’t want to cause the House the same trauma as “a century ago.” “

This was a reference the pivotal House revolt against Speaker Joseph G. Cannon, also known as Joe Uncle Joe and Czar Cannon, in 1910. It is hard to imagine how powerful speakers were in 1910. By the late 1800s, it was so extreme that it could be compared with the absolute power exercised by Russian monarchs for centuries known as the czars. told CNN
After a revolt, in 1910, Republican Illinois Rep. Joseph Cannon lost much of his influence as House Speaker.

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The Maine Republican Thomas Brackett Reed was the first speaker to be attacked as a “czar”. He dominated the chamber like few others before him. Cannon was left a set of parliamentary devices, insider agreements and other tools that would allow him to influence and control the Rules Committee.

Cannon developed “Reed’s Rules”. He could become chairman of the Rules Committee and appoint other committee chairs. He could also decide who would sit on each committee, which bills would come to the floor, the amendments that would be acceptable, who was allowed to make them, or even give an address. He determined the winner of voice votes, and dictated the schedule. One member was reported to have sent a photo of Joe Cannon in response to a request from the House for a copy.

Cannon wasn’t just using his power to keep the House in order. He used it to make a powerful impact that went beyond Congress, as a tool for defeating any reforms or policy changes he did not like. He often fought with Theodore Roosevelt, and any other member of either party that had progressive ideas. Cannon, despite being affable and popular throughout his career resisted government regulations of business and supported high tariffs. He also disliked change in general. It was said that had he been present at the Creation he would have voted against it.

Aggressive progressives bring conflict to boiling point

All this reached a boiling point in 1910 when Cannon was in his fourth term as speaker. Roosevelt, who had been out of the White House for two years, was dissatisfied with his successor. He wanted to run again. The progressives were on the rise in many states. Their presence in both the House and Senate created a base of power for men like George W. Norris from Nebraska, who later served five terms in Senate.

Norris became the Republican’s point of contact for opposing Cannon. Norris was watching as another member in March 1910 asked for permission to introduce a resolution on the 1910 census that wasn’t part of the normal order. He argued that as a Constitution-mandated function, the census was not subject to normal House rules. Cannon agreed.

Norris, spotting an opportunity, pounced. The next day, Norris rose and announced that he had a second resolution based on a constitutional right. Cannon, not knowing what the privilege was, allowed the motion. Norris then presented a new proposal for the Rules Committee. It would no longer be appointed by the Speaker, but instead elected by the entire House. The committee was to have a nearly equal representation of parties and the right to select its own chairperson. Norris’ vision for the new Rules Committee was to explicitly bar the speaker from being its chairman. This was the most direct act of defiance against Cannon. The hall suddenly shook with electricity, writes Alvin M. Josephy Jr. of Congress. “Through newspapers, the entire country witnessed the dramatic drama of a sudden revolution against Cannonism. “

All done but the screaming — and generations’ worth of fallout

One Cannon loyalist quickly brought a motion of order against Norris. Cannon realized that many of his usual supporters were absent because it was St. Patrick’s Day. Cannon delayed any decision on Norris’ resolution but kept the session open two days and two night while his minions attempted to marshal speaker’s forces. While Norris, and Champ Clark, the Democratic leader of Missouri, searched for missing members, they rallied to their cause. Cannon soon realized he was outmanoeuvred. Cannon tried to reach a compromise with Norris and then ruled Norris resolution out of order. Clark appealed Cannon’s ruling, noting that Cannon allowed the previous census resolution based on a similar constitutional argument only days earlier. Norris’ dissidents, along with the Democrats, then approved a revised version of the original Resolution on a stronger vote of 191-156. The reformers overpowered the all-powerful Czar. Cannon was still the presiding officer, but his autocratic days were over. The power of the chamber shifted to the chairs of the different committees. These positions were not filled by the speaker, but rather by seniority. This reform had many unintended effects. It would take a half-century before speakers began to address imbalances in the system and assert their own central roles.
Cannon House Office Building in 2015. The former Speaker of the House, Cannon, was given this name in 1962.

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The Cannon House Office Building in 2015. The former Speaker was the name of this building in 1962.

Andrew Harnik/AP

Cannon was reelected himself in 1910 but his party lost majority in 1911 and Clark became the speaker. These were the peak years of the so-called Progressive Era, which produced the progressive income tax, voting rights for women and the popular election of senators — among other reforms.

Cannon lost his own seat in the election of 1912, even as Woodrow Wilson was becoming the first new Democrat in the White House since the 1880s. Cannon returned to Illinois in 1914 and was re-elected, serving from 1923. He had been in Washington longer than any other member of Congress at that time. His story was published in a magazine dedicated to national news. The black-and-white drawing of his bewhiskered, sadly wistful face was the first cover story in

Time

. Cannon died in 1926 at the age 90. In 1962, the first building of House staff and members, which was completed in 1908, while Cannon was still Speaker, was named after him.