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Mike Johnson and the troubled history of recent Republican speakers

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson attends a news conference at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.
Julia Nikhinson
AFP via Getty Images
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson attends a news conference at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.

When the House returns from its recess next week, Speaker Mike Johnson is now widely expected to resume his duties without immediately facing a motion to oust him.

Just such a "motion to vacate the chair" was filed against Johnson in March by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. But Greene has yet to make the motion "privileged," which under the rules would necessitate a vote within two days.

Greene had vowed to press her challenge after Johnson announced a strategy to pass $95 billion in aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan earlier this month. About two-thirds of that money was for Ukraine, an issue Greene had called her "red line" for moving against the speaker.

Two colleagues had spoken up to say they would join Greene in such a vote, giving her enough to defeat the speaker if all the chamber's Democrats voted to do the same. That's what the Democrats did when a motion to vacate the chair ousted the last Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy, last fall. He had been in the job less than nine months.

But this time around several Democrats have indicated they would cross the aisle to support Johnson and frustrate Greene & Co. if it came to a vote. Democratic leaders have indicated they are open to this, and it essentially repeats the strategy that allowed Johnson to pass the Ukraine portion of the aid bill earlier this month.

So Greene may have missed her moment. Johnson has gained stature and won bipartisan praise for letting the whole House vote on the aid package. He also gotstrong support in the Senate, where even an outright majority of Republicans voted for the aid on Tuesday. The package was signed into law by President Biden the following day.

But as Greene has said, the existence of her motion serves as a warning. She could activate a vote at any time so Johnson should know he is skating on thin ice.

And that is true, he should. Even a glance at the history of Republican speakers since World War II would tell him that.

The current state of internal politics among House Republicans is so unsettled that almost anything could happen at almost any time.

As Shakespeare wrote: "Uneasy rests the head that wears a crown," and in recent history that goes double for speakers who are also Republicans.

Johnson is the sixth Republican elevated to the speakership since 1994, the year the party won its first House majority and elected a speaker of its own for the first time in 40 years. The hard truth is that the five who preceded Johnson (McCarthy, Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Dennis Hastert and Newt Gingrich) all saw their time in the office end in relative degrees of defeat or frustration. And to find a Republican speaker who left voluntarily in a moment of victory, moving on to another office, you have to go back to the mid-1920s.

There's been a history of hard landings

The 30-year saga began with Gingrich of Georgia, who was the first member of his party to gain "the big gavel" since the early 1950s and the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Gingrich had been a backbench rabble-rouser since coming to the House in 1978 and built up a cadre of supporters until he won the party's No. 2 power position as minority whip in 1989. He soon eclipsed the party's leader, Robert Michel, who was nearing retirement.

In 1994, two years into the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton, Gingrich organized a campaign around a 10-item agenda called the "Contract with America." It provided a unified message for the party's nominees, who flipped more than 50 seats and stormed into the majority.

Gingrich managed to restore many of the powers of the speakership but clashed repeatedly with Clinton and even with Republican leaders in the Senate. In 1997, in his second Congress as speaker, he barely survived a largely covert challenge from within his own leadership team. And just shy of his fourth anniversary in the job, he was voted out by the full House Republican conference in December 1998.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (center), shown here surrounded by House Republicans, holds up a copy of the "Contract With America" during a speech on April 7, 1995 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Richard Ellis / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (center), shown here surrounded by House Republicans, holds up a copy of the "Contract With America" during a speech on April 7, 1995 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Once Gingrich was gone, the line of succession was not clear. The No. 2 Republican at the time did not have the votes, and the No. 3 declined to run. The chairman of the Appropriations Committee was nominated by the party conference but withdrew after a magazine story accused him of marital infidelity.

The mantle fell to Hastert of Illinois, the chief deputy whip. Like Johnson an era later, Hastert was a relatively quiet member of the leadership who enjoyed goodwill generally in the rank and file. Hastert was speaker through the last two Clinton years and first six of the George W. Bush presidency. But he voluntarily resigned after the GOP lost badly in the 2006 midterms, a defeat Bush called "a thumpin' " at the time.

Those eight years actually made Hastert the longest-serving Republican speaker in history. But any luster left after 2006 was lost when he went to prison for bank fraud charges stemming from hush money payments he had made toa former student he admitted to having sexually abused decades earlier.

The next two Republican speakers would be John Boehner, elevated to the job by the GOP recapture of the House in the "Tea Party" election of 2010. Boehner worked hard to fashion budget deals with both a Democratic President Barack Obama and a Democratic Senate. But his efforts alienated some in his own ranks who in 2015 formed an insurgent group known as the House Freedom Caucus. Increasingly exasperated with his untenable predicament, Boehner simply resigned in October of that year.

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan (right) and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy walk through the Capitol rotunda on May 17, 2023.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan (right) and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy walk through the Capitol rotunda on May 17, 2023.

Here again, the line of succession was not as clear as it appeared. The well-respected No. 2 Republican, Eric Cantor of Virginia, had lost his primary in 2014. The No. 3, McCarthy, soon ran aground over remarks in a TV interview and lacked the votes to be speaker. The party settled on Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who had not sought the gavel but agreed to take it.

Ryan, then just 45, was the youngest speaker in nearly 150 years but had already been party's vice presidential nominee on the 2012 ticket. Once he had Boehner's job, however, he experienced much the same internal strife. Ryan also had a strained relationship with then-President Donald Trump, with whom he had a falling out during the fall 2016 campaign. In April 2018, Ryan said he would not serve another term and left as the party was losing its majority that fall.

More distant memories

Prior to the GOP's 40-year sentence as the minority party, several of its speakers had risen to the top rung largely on their personal popularity among their colleagues. One was Joseph Martin of Massachusetts, who led the party in the House during two brief interludes of majority status after World War II. Both lasted only the minimum two years, the first ending with Democratic Harry S. Truman's surprise White House win in 1948. Martin was back four years later when Eisenhower was first elected president in 1952, but that tour at the top was cut short by his party's sharp losses two years later.

Prior to that, the last Republican speaker had been Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, who died in 1931. Technically, he died as speaker, but his party lost its majority before the next Congress convened and elected a Democrat to the job.

Nicholas Longworth, speaker of the House, holds a gun once owned by famous outlaw Jesse James on Jan. 23, 1930.
/ Bettmann Archive
Bettmann Archive
Nicholas Longworth, speaker of the House, holds a gun once owned by famous outlaw Jesse James on Jan. 23, 1930.

Although Longworth was speaker for only a little over five years, he was well-regarded and symbolic of Republican prosperity in its heydays under Teddy Roosevelt (his father-in-law) and again in the 1920s. When Congress authorized a new House office building in 1931, shortly after Longworth's death, it was named for him and remains so today.

His predecessor, Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, also had the top job for less than five years. But when he left after the 1924 session, his party was still firmly in control and had just elected President Calvin Coolidge to a full term. Gillett himself moved on to the Senate.

Longevity has simply not been a hallmark of Republican speakers. The list of the 10 speakers who served in the job longest includes just one Republican (and in the ninth slot at that). That speaker was Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois, notorious as the autocratic "Czar Cannon" during three two-year tours as speaker that ended with his party's historic defeat in 1910.

Democrats and durability

Democrats too have had their short speakerships. In 1989 Speaker Jim Wright of Texas resigned under pressure following revelations about a book deal the House Ethics Committee saw as circumventing fundraising rules. Wright had only been in the job a little over two years at the time. Longworth's successor, John "Cactus Jack" Garner of Texas, left the office after just over a year to be Franklin Roosevelt's first vice president.

But as a rule, the Democrats' succession machinery and their regional political balancing long known as the party's "Boston-Austin axis" (or vice versa) helped lend stability.

On that list of the 10 longest-serving speakers, seven are Democrats. Most of them served in that long stretch when their party held the majority for four decades. The most recent Democrat, however, is Nancy Pelosi, still a House member and the House speaker emerita. She comes in at fifth on the longevity roster, having served one day shy of eight years from 2007 to 2011 and again from 2019 to 2023.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 27, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Barack Obama's first name.
Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.