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Opinion: Americans should get familiar with this once-obscure legislative maneuver


Opinion by Thomas Balcerski

(CNN) — California Rep. Kevin McCarthy has once again made history, this time for being the first House speaker to be removed from his post. Of course, his earlier entry into the record books — needing an unprecedented 15 rounds of votes to be elected to the chamber’s top job in the first place — makes his historic departure less surprising. After all, one of the concessions he made to win was that any member of the House could submit a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair (in other words, force a vote to oust him from the speakership).

On Tuesday, McCarthy faced just such a motion. It was only the second time in US history that it was invoked, and the first time the speaker lost the resulting vote. In fact, the only other time this rare procedural move was called, more than a century ago, it was as an act of political gamesmanship by the speaker himself, rather than being a true attempt to dislodge the leader. Still, the historical record in invoking it may shed light on what lies ahead for McCarthy and the leadership of the House of Representatives.

The short version is that the result didn’t bode well for anyone in the Republican Party.

The long version begins in 1910, when House Speaker Joseph “Uncle Joe” Cannon (R-IL) was facing his own revolt from within the Republican Party. At issue was Cannon’s tyrannical leadership style. By taking for himself oversight of the House Rules Committee, which then as now controls how legislation is introduced, as well as the power of the speaker he had effectively taken over the congressional agenda since becoming speaker in 1903. Over the years, his iron control had earned him the moniker “Czar Cannon.”

Word first emerged that President William Howard Taft wanted to remove his fellow Republican from the top House office at a public meeting in 1909. A colorful character in a colorful political age, Cannon took the threats to his position quite personally. In response to the news from Taft, he replied, “Behold Mr. Cannon, the Beelzebub of Congress! Gaze on this noble, manly form — me, Beelzebub — me, the Czar!”

The next year, a small group of progressive Republicans, long upset by Cannon’s arbitrary use of power, staged the Revolt of 1910. On March 17, George Norris, a leading progressive Republican, moved to strip Cannon of his position on the Rules Committee, which the House voted to do two days later.

Not one to back down, Cannon turned the tables on his Republican caucus and demanded that a motion to vacate the chair be called. In this way, Cannon slyly reasoned, the new, albeit temporary, majority of Democrats and progressive Republicans could choose their own speaker, a task no easier then than it would be for Democrats and moderate Republicans to agree on a speaker today.

Their bluff called, Norris and the “Insurgent” members of the Republicans caucus voted 192 to 155 to keep “Uncle Joe” in charge. In turn, the newly organized Rules Committee reformed the procedures by which bills could be introduced into the House.

But the damage had been done. In 1912, thanks in large part to former President Theodore Roosevelt challenging the incumbent Taft and running as a third-party progressive after Taft narrowly won the Republican nomination, Republicans lost the White House and the Congress to Democrats. Cannon himself was defeated in his reelection bid for Congress that year.

The motion to vacate has remained the exclusive domain of the Republican Party since the days of Czar Cannon. While it had never again been applied before this week, it was threatened in two key instances: In 1997, dissident Republicans threatened to force Speaker Newt Gingrich from power, and in 2015, Mark Meadows (later chief of staff to President Donald Trump) tried to use the procedure against Speaker John Boehner.

Neither motion ever came to a vote, but both still had the desired effect. In 1998, Gingrich stepped down as speaker and resigned from Congress two months later. In 2015, John Boehner also stepped down as speaker after battling more conservative elements of his party to take a harder line with then-President Barack Obama. Those rifts are still playing out in the chaos that the successful motion against McCarthy has wrought.

When Democrats took control of the House in 2019, they overhauled the rules to ensure that a motion to vacate needed more than just one member to bring forward. But that provision was rolled back as part of the concessions McCarthy made in January to get voted in, and it’s unclear whether the next speaker will be able to avoid a similar deal.

The instability of the Republican caucus in 2023 as compared to 1910 and even to 2015 is what makes the present situation far more interesting and potentially volatile for the nation. Without question, the margin of control is slimmer, and our politics today are more fractious. While the motion to vacate was once an extremely rare procedural step, Americans would do well to become familiar with it. It may soon become much more commonplace in our politics.

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