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Ethical Woes Have Driven Speakers out of House

The forced removal of House speakers has little precedent throughout history. However, although a motion to vacate the speakership has only been made once before in the House (albeit unsuccessfully), several of the 53 speakers in history left their positions unceremoniously.

In July 2015, a group of conservatives led by North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows moved to have the speakership declared vacant in an effort to replace John A. Boehner of Ohio with a leader in whom they have more confidence. Boehner told his GOP colleagues on Friday he would resign his speakership and his House seat at the end of October.

Joseph G. Cannon

On Capitol Hill, the word “Cannon” denotes a House office building.

The man for whom that building is named, Republican Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois, was one of the most powerful speakers in history.

After becoming speaker in 1903, Cannon consolidated his control over the House, deciding who would become the chairmen of committees and imposing restrictions on floor debate and amendments.

His autocratic rule finally led to a revolt by insurgent Republicans and Democrats.

In March 1910, by a vote of 192-155 the House defeated a resolution declaring the speaker’s job to be vacant.

But partly due to the backlash against Cannon’s rule, the Republicans lost seats in the 1910 elections and Democrats became the majority party for the first time since 1895.

John W. McCormack

By 1969, Speaker John W. McCormack of Massachusetts, 77, had been a member of the House for 40 years. Gaunt, white-haired and wearing old-fashioned wire-rimmed spectacles, he personified the Depression-era generation of Democrats who ran the House.

Younger liberal Democrats were unhappy with McCormack’s support for the Vietnam War. Insurgent Democrat Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona announced in 1968 that he would challenge McCormack for the speakership, saying there was an “overriding need for new directions and new leadership.”

Udall got only 58 votes to McCormack’s 178 in the Jan. 2, 1969 balloting by Democratic House members.

But in the fall of 1969 McCormack’s reputation suffered from two grand juries’ investigations of influence peddling by his aide Martin Sweig and McCormack’s friend, lobbyist Nathan M. Voloshen.

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged that Voloshen had used Sweig to set up a meeting with SEC officials to press them to allow trading to resume in the stock of Parvin Dohrmann Company, which owned casinos in Las Vegas.

According to Life magazine, Sweig and Voloshen had used McCormack’s office as their base of operations. Life said that convicted embezzler Edward M. Gilbert had paid Voloshen up to $75,000 to arrange for McCormack to call the New York State Parole Board chairman to seek an early parole for him.

McCormack denied any knowledge of his office being used for influence peddling and said that in 1970 he would run for his 23rd term in the House and for sixth term as speaker.

But the pressure grew on him. In an editorial on Nov. 2, 1969, The New York Times said McCormack was “guilty of a serious dereliction of duty in allowing the high public office to which he was entrusted to be compromised.”

The Times demanded that he resign “not only to restore the integrity of the office which his friends have abused but to make way for the younger, more vigorous leadership to which he should have yielded last January.”

Reversing his pledge to run again, McCormack announced on May 12, 1970, that he would retire at year end.

Voloshen later pleaded guilty to conspiring to use the speaker’s office to influence regulatory agencies and Sweig was convicted of perjury.

Jim Wright

The only speaker to be forced by scandal to leave office before the end of his term was Texas Democrat Jim Wright in 1989.

The House Ethics Committee, consisting of six members from each party, reported in April 1989 that some of Wright’s financial dealings had violated House rules. The committee found that he’d accepted gifts from Fort Worth developer George Mallick and had arranged bulk sales of his book, Reflections of a Public Man, to circumvent the House limits on outside earned income.

The panel had opened its investigation into Wright’s finances in 1988 after complaints were filed by the advocacy group Common Cause and by Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who would become speaker himself in 1995.

In a farewell speech on the House floor on May 31, 1989, Wright admitted to making mistakes in judgment, but denied breaking any House rules.

On the bulk sales of his book, he explained, “I wanted to get the widest possible distribution of the book. A book that you write is kind of part of you. You think of it a child almost.”

He denied that he’d used sales of the book as a subterfuge to exceed the earnings limit. “I mean, do you think I’d do something like that?” he asked his colleagues.

Members of Congress, he said, “must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end.” His resignation took effect on June 6, 1989. Wright died in May at the age of 92. 

Newt Gingrich

The 1994 election gave the Republicans the majority after 40 years, making Gingrich the new speaker.

But Gingrich was hobbled by an Ethics Committee investigation of his financial and fund-raising activities.

Gingrich admitted in 1996 that he’d given the ethics panel misleading information during its investigation of a scheme involving tax-exempt groups which allowed supporters to make undisclosed contributions to underwrite his town hall meetings and college classes.

On Jan. 21, 1997, the House reprimanded Gingrich and imposed a $300,000 penalty. The vote was 395-28, with five members voting present.

GOP members’ complaints about Gingrich’s erratic leadership style led to an effort in later in 1997 by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Whip Tom DeLay, Conference Chairman John A. Boehner and others to overthrow him.

Some Republicans later said DeLay had urged them to make a motion to vacate the chair which they could use to oust the speaker.

CQ’s 1997 Almanac reported that “the coup never got off the ground, hampered by the continuing problem of deciding on a suitable successor” — a problem that bedevils those seeking to replace Boehner today.

Gingrich reckoned that the Republicans’ 1998 effort to impeach President Bill Clinton would be popular with voters in the mid-term elections, predicting a gain of up to 30 seats. Instead the Democrats scored a net gain of five.

Three days after the election rout, Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana said he would challenge Gingrich for the speaker’s job.

Gingrich soon decided that he would relinquish the speakership. Livingston seemed certain to succeed him. But his was a speakership that ended – in melodramatic style – before it began.

The night before the House began its debate on impeaching Clinton, Livingston stunned his colleagues by telling them “I have on occasion strayed from my marriage.”

He went to the House floor on Dec. 19 and addressing himself to Clinton, said “you have the power to  . . .  heal the wounds that you have created. You, sir, may resign your post.”

At that, Democrats shouted at Livingston, “You resign!” Once the chorus died down, Livingston said he’d do exactly that.

“I was prepared to lead our narrow majority as speaker, and I believe I had it in me to do a fine job. But I cannot do that job or be the kind of leader that I would like to be under current circumstances, so I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow,” he said.


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