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House Speaker John Boehner Announces Retirement, Ending Motion to Vacate the Chair

Today, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced to House Republicans that he is retiring from Congress at the end of October.  Boehner, now in his fifth year as Speaker of the House, faced a challenge no other House Speaker had faced in over a century: A Motion to Vacate the Chair spearheaded by a small, conservative group inside his own Republican Causes and led by Congressman Mark Meadows, a second-term Member from North Carolina.

The rules on forcing a Speaker to vacate the Chair in mid-session are obscure and precedents few.  But the last time – a century ago – it sparked a major battle that changed the dynamic of the House for an entire generation.  The reason in large part was because the targeted Speaker was a giant of the era, none less than  Joseph G. Cannon (R.-Ill.), namesake of the Cannon House Office Building, today one of the most familiar landmarks in Washington, D.C.

Cannon — everyone from president to shoe shine boy called him “Uncle Joe” — presided as Speaker from 1903 to 1911, the height of Theodore Roosevelt’s era.  When he left Congress in March 1923, he had served almost fifty years and been elected twenty-two times, a record back then. Time Magazine that month put his face on the cover of its first-ever edition. Tall, lanky, and outgoing, always a cigar in his teeth, quick with a smart off-color joke, a back-slapping poker player, Cannon received 58 votes for President of the United States at the 1908 Republican Convention and had his picture on two different brands of chewing tobacco.

“Uncle Joe” could be charming, but also coarse and tough.  As Speaker, he felt perfectly entitled to punish recalcitrant Members of his own party in ways no modern Speaker would dare.  He stripped them of committees, silenced them on the House floor, cut off their patronage, insulted or abused them, and even recruited challengers in their home districts. 

His caucus mostly went along — it was simply the way things worked back then.  Even President William Howard Taft, when Cannon asked him to cut off White House patronage from a few renegade Congressmen who opposed Cannon on a rule change, followed orders.    But Cannon the bully ultimately fell on his face.

In March 1911, those abused junior Members in Cannon’s caucus finally found the courage and strategy to rebel and strip Cannon of his leadership powers.  The revolt, led by young Nebraska Congressman and future Senator George W. Norris (R-Ne.), played out in full public view, an unprecedented spectacle on the floor of Congress, a three-day parliamentary siege during which Cannon had to filibuster from the Speaker’s Chair just to be heard.  In the end, Norris and his insurgents (they would later call themselves Progressives) succeeded in bringing down not just Cannon, but also President Taft and an entire class of Washington’s old guard.

But once Norris’s Insurgents had stripped Cannon of his powers, they decided to reverse ground and join the majority of their own party to defeat the ensuing Motion to Vacate the Chair, leaving Cannon as a lame-duck Speaker, an attempt to avoid later recriminations.

As a tactical matter, the group challenging Speaker Boehner today had a more difficult task than George W. Norris’s Insurgents in 1911.  Norris was able to make common cause with the Democrats who held the balance of power in the House.  Their combined votes gave them a working majority.

Today’s rebelling Republicans are on the opposite side.   It’s Boehner who, at least on the surface, seemed to be in the better position to combine with Democrats who would be natural allies in opposing a government shutdown or opposing an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. But politics can have strange ways.

What this all means for the House Republican leadership and further negotiations to resolve the FY 2016 federal budget remains to be seen.

When not practicing law, OFW’s Ken Ackerman is an accomplished historian and author.  His books include Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York; Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield; Young J. Edgar: Hoover and the Red Scare, 1919-1920; and the forthcoming Trotzky in New York City, 1917.

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