What the Fight for the Speakership Is Actually About

Republicans are split on how to balance broad participation against the efficient functioning of the institution.

The House is struggling to find leadership to replace outgoing Speaker John Boehner. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

In 1910, the Republican Party was in crisis. Ray Stannard Baker posed the question, “Is the Republican Party Breaking Up?” in the pages of The American Magazine. Baker described a struggle between the “most unyielding of the Regulars” and those the party leaders dismissed as “a factional disturbance to be crushed out … mutineers.” Locked in mortal battle, the Republicans fractured in 1912, losing both the White House and the Congress to Democrats.

It would seem from watching the current maelstrom within the House Republican Conference that history is repeating itself. As Yogi Berra might have put it: “déjà vu all over again.”

“We should be fighting the Democrats—not the Republicans,” Tea Party leader Raúl Labrador declared. “We shouldn't be fighting each other.” But the rebellion against House Speaker John Boehner, the inability to legislate, and the unanticipated implosion of Kevin McCarthy all suggest a party wracked by division and self-doubt.

In both eras, a voluble faction crucial to the GOP retaining its majority status challenged the establishment’s domination. The minority—Tea Party today, or progressive a century ago—claimed to reflect the true desires of the electorate, and demanded a more substantive role in running the party.

In the 1970s, a similar situation unfolded. Then, liberals successfully challenged a conservative hierarchy that had stifled debate, obstructed legislation, and reduced Congress to what Senator Joseph Clark, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, termed “The Sapless Branch” of government. The liberal rebellion, which had begun in the mid-1950s, brought in waves of progressive members to the Democratic Caucus for nearly two decades. By 1975, the liberal faction had the votes to implement reforms promoted for years by groups including McCarthy’s Marauders and the Democratic Study Group.

Today’s Republican “mutineers” echo some of the demands of those earlier Democratic agitators. The freshmen of 1975 allied with veterans to open hearings, record votes, and expand opportunities to offer amendments and manage bills on the floor. These innovations benefitted not only reformist Democrats but also Republicans. Similarly, Republican dissenters are demanding not only a new speaker, but also a substantial revision of House rules. “We want rules, policy and process…[seats] at the leadership table, inside the room,” said freshman Freedom Caucus member David Brat.

The demands, which also include a say in allocating seats on committees, reflect an ongoing struggle in large legislative institutions. Broad participation allows for expansive debate, and dissemination of power prevents autocratic management, but both reforms come at a potential cost to the efficiency of the institution. The unrestrained participation demanded by the Freedom Caucus would encourage hardliners to offer more cutting-edge amendments, but also permit Democrats to craft amendments designed to brand Republicans as zealots, leaving some more vulnerable to electoral challenges.

That strategy is precisely how Republicans exploited the reforms of the 1970s, escalating the number of divisive amendments on issues like abortion, school business, and deficits. Today, Democratic efforts to mend a bill or embarrass Republicans are often limited to the “Motion to Recommit,” but under the changes proposed by the Freedom Caucus, there could be numerous motions that force Republicans to either cast controversial votes or invite attacks from their right. It is likely for that reason that Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, warned, "You couldn't handle anything sensitive if you just opened it up.”

Part of the dilemma faced by the reformers of the ‘70s and today may well be the propensity for parties—as they grow into a majority—to develop factions that battle each other and, eventually, promote fragmentation. Parties in the minority— Democrats in the 2005-2006 period, and Republicans in 2007-2008—demonstrated impressive discipline, and a necessity for sending a clear message that differentiates its members from the party it seeks to displace. But once in power, by virtue of gaining the seats needed to attain the majority, both parties find themselves with factions that make governance a challenge.

Nancy Pelosi, for whom I once worked as chief of staff during her tenure as speaker, termed that faction the “Majority Makers.” They included many Blue Dog conservatives whose defeat ended her reign as speaker. Boehner has called those who toppled the Democrats in 2010 and their followers “false prophets.” And Republican Devin Nunes has dubbed them “right-wing Marxists.”

Americans may well be seeing the repetition of a pattern of victory-reform-factionalization-defeat that has become a recurrent feature in an environment where parties are aligned in ideological, partisan conflict. At the moment, the scene for Republicans resembles the deepening chaos of 1910. And while the Grand Old Party is not exactly “breaking up,” as Baker once speculated, it is certainly looking a lot older and a lot less grand.