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‘Interim Speaker’ Stumps Scholars

(CQ Roll Call Graphic)
(CQ Roll Call Graphic)

Frustrated House Republicans kept floating trial balloon speaker candidates Thursday in the wake of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s about-face on climbing the GOP ladder, including several who might serve as an “interim” speaker.  

The problem is, no one seems to agree on how this “caretaker” leader would function.  

Or if such a position is even legitimate.  

“The House has operated without a speaker, but to my recollection it has never had an ‘interim’ speaker,” Matthew Green, associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America and author of “The Speaker of the House: A Study in Leadership,” told CQ Roll Call of the seemingly unprecedented push to elevate somebody — anybody — to the top office in the chamber.  

Defining Moments The rules of the House do allow for time-limited promotions.  

As agreed to by the 114th Congress, a speaker pro tempore can serve for up to three days under normal circumstances, or up to 10 days should serious illness befall the sitting speaker. In most cases, the sitting speaker simply appoints the expected replacement ahead of time. Absent clear leadership, House members are obligated to elect the speaker pro tem as soon as possible.  

According to Deschler’s Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives , such transfers of power were once quite commonplace:

  • In May 1937, Speaker William B. Bankhead, D-Ala., temporarily passed the gavel to Rep. Lindsay C. Warren, D-N.C., so that he could deliver a commencement address at the University of Alabama and subsequently repose at home.
  • In August 1941, Speaker Sam Rayburn gave Rep. Clifton A. Woodrum, D-Va., a go at the chair so that he could get some R & R. “I am homesick. I want to go home tomorrow,” the Texas Democrat alerted colleagues, expressing a desperate need. “I do have the very great desire of for a few days sniffing a different atmosphere,” Rayburn pleaded.

But these lapses were self-prescribed.  

And the players involved knew what their leaders were up to and when to expect them back.  

It remains unclear how long this new placeholder position might last. (Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., suggested perhaps a two-month stint.)  

Or when it might begin. (Perhaps at the end of October, when Speaker John A. Boehner was originally expected to step down? After the New Year?)  

Or whether it should be carried out by election or appointment.  

Which means if someone bites on the nebulous gig, he or she might have to make things up as they go along.  

That’s certainly been the case before.  

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“The political system broke asunder, and amid the chaos the speakership of the House became a visible victim of the breakdown. In the process, the vital role that the speakership plays in the American political system was revealed more clearly than at any other time in American history.”

That dramatic snapshot of a meltdown on Capitol Hill, though apropos today, actually corresponds to the divisiveness that plagued the legislative branch in the run-up to the Civil War.  

Per Ronald M. Peters Jr., author of “The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective,” from which the quotation above was taken, a terribly fractured electorate led to bedlam in Washington.  

“Along with the old familiar Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers, there were also Republicans, People’s Party men, Anti-Nebraskites, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, Know-Somethings (antislavery nativists), Maine Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindoos, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells, Adopted Citizens and assorted others,” Peters related of the dizzying array of warring officials.  

The lack of harmony — and in some cases, outright distrust for one another — led to the rise of some compromised positions.  

“William Pennington was an undistinguished politician,” is how Donald R. Kennon, author of the “The Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives,” introduces one such historical afterthought.  

According to Kennon, Pennington wound up leading Congress pretty much by attrition. “He proved to be a less than adequate Speaker, so ignorant of parliamentary law that he reportedly had to ask the advice of a page,” Kennon writes.  

And the humiliations don’t end there. “After he was defeated for reelection in 1860, Pennington returned to Newark, where he died on February 16, 1862, from an overdose of morphine evidently administered by mistake,” Kennon recounts.  

Still, it would take some serious bungling to overtake one of the most amazing records in the history of the House: Speaker Theodore Pomeroy served for only one day — signing on as leader solely to close out the 40th Congress.  

“The unanimity with which I have been chosen to preside for this brief period is evidence of itself that your choice carries with it no political significance,” the New York Republican purportedly commented upon getting the job on the last day of the session on March 3, 1869.  

Pomeroy went on to work in banking but didn’t totally leave public service behind, serving as mayor of Auburn, N.Y., and in the New York state Senate. But he never returned to federal office, and died on March 23, 1905.


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