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Can the anti-Pelosi faction change the US House? History lessons for House Democrats.

The 1923 speaker election illustrated the power of a majority party faction to bargain for reform and drive a speaker from power.

Nancy Pelosi Holds Weekly Press Conference At U.S. Capitol
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks during a weekly news conference on November 15, 2018.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

As Nancy Pelosi awaits the final seat count from a successful midterm surge, she has pivoted to her next battle, retaking the House speakership that she won in 2007 to become the first female speaker in House history, then lost in 2011. Pelosi remained party leader in 2016 by defeating Tim Ryan (OH), but the 134-63 caucus election revealed a surprisingly high level of opposition.

This time around, several 2018 Democratic candidates made campaign promises to vote against her, and 17 Democrats have pledged not to vote for her as speaker, but it is not clear who will run against her.

If the rebels cannot really remove Pelosi, then why embark on this futile campaign? We think they can get two things: more power in the House through rule changes and, possibly, the departure of Pelosi in the near future. That’s exactly what happened after the 1922 election, the last time that electing the speaker required more than one ballot.

A century ago, in a mirror image of today, the 1918 elections brought the Republicans back to power after eight years out. Notably, the triumphant GOP caucus then chose to swap leaders, dumping James Mann (IL) in favor of Frederick Gillett (MA) by a 138-69 vote. Gillett won the House speakership election on the first roll call in May 1919. In the 1920 elections, Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge demolished the Democratic ticket, winning 60 percent of the popular vote. On those coattails, the party’s advantage in the US House grew dramatically, and the 302 Republicans unanimously reelected Gillett as speaker.

The 1922 midterm saw Democrats claw back many seats, leaving only a slight 225-207-3 Republican advantage. As the first session of the 68th Congress neared, a faction of progressive members saw the slim Republican majority as a chance to take a stand against the regular Republicans led by Gillett. The rebels first acted in the caucus vote: Gillett was selected to be the Republican candidate for speaker with 190 votes, but 24 votes scattered to three other candidates. The caucus results showed that rebels could not defeat Gillett but could prevent his election, and they persisted in their revolt, denying him a majority through the first eight House roll calls to select a speaker.

The ninth, conclusive vote was preceded by an announcement by John Nelson (WI) of conditions mutually agreed to in order to get the Republican rebels on board with returning Gillett to power. These amounted to agreement, from Majority Leader Nicholas Longworth, to permit an open-rule process of revising the House rules, within 30 days. The critical changes concerned empowering members to discharge bills from committees. We believe that the replacement of Speaker Gillett was also on the minds of both the rebels and the chief leadership negotiator, who would quickly turn out to be Gillett’s successor.

Can the rebel Democrats of the 21st century obtain some similar outcome? As in 1923, they could negotiate rule changes that would give factions within the party the power to hold hostage a majority decision. The actual rule change could take many forms, as there are many ways to decentralize power and give rebels more bargaining power within the caucus. A rule change to decentralize decision-making power could arguably benefit Speaker Pelosi too, as she could then credibly claim constraints that might help when negotiating with a Republican president and Senate.

Some are already trying to change the Democrats’ internal rules, a move also attempted by progressive Republicans in the 1920s, but without success. A group of moderates are also pressing for rules changes to loosen the speaker’s control of legislation. A caveat is that rebels from the far left may dislike Pelosi for different reasons than rebels from the center. These groups of dissenters may struggle to unite on demands for policy or procedural concessions.

Today’s rebels could also settle for the promise of Pelosi leaving her seat at the end of the next Congress, denying Republicans a campaign issue in the 2020 elections. In 1923, the progressive Republican rebels wanted rules changes to decentralize decision-making power, but they also hoped Longworth would push Gillett aside. Indeed, in May 1924, Gillett made a surprise announcement that he would not seek reelection to the US House, but would instead challenge the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, David Walsh.

The announcement was unexpected, and difficult to understand. Why leave the most powerful position in the House for a competitive Republican primary and difficult general election against an incumbent? Critically, President Coolidge was pulling Gillett out, as Longworth pushed from behind. We can imagine some young Turks in the Democratic ranks taking a chance on a “not now but very soon” promise on Pelosi’s exit. But this time, presidential assistance is very unlikely, unless Donald Trump’s embrace could actually shift Pelosi loyalists to the rebel camp. The Senate does not seem an obvious face-saving destination for Pelosi, with 85-year-old Dianne Feinstein having just been reelected.

History demonstrates that victory is rarely permanent in politics, as the rule changes achieved by the rebels were reversed quickly. The 1924 election saw another triumphant Republican presidential ticket with coattails. Upon being elected speaker, with progressives no longer pivotal, Longworth amended the House rules so that discharge was again dependent on support by a majority of the House, and arguably even more difficult to employ. Pelosi’s best bet might be to hope that her Democratic enemies know how short-lived were the gains of those Republican rebels in the last ’20s.

Brian J. Gaines and Gisela Sin are political scientists at the University of Illinois.

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