Political observers, most Americans and even members of Congress can’t remember a battle for the post of speaker of the U.S. House as fraught as the one that began back in January 2023 and continues still, 10 months later.
On Jan. 7, California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy finally became speaker after 15 rounds of voting. But on Oct. 3, he was ousted. On Oct. 17 and again on Oct. 18, Ohio Republican Jim Jordan came up short in two rounds of voting to replace McCarthy.
The reason it’s so hard to recall a parallel is that there isn’t one – at least not since the 1850s, which saw a fight over the speakership that took nearly two months and 133 rounds of voting.
Along with all manner of other inauspicious “firsts” in American politics over the last few years – a violent attempt to overturn a presidential election in the halls of Congress and a former president being indicted for the attempt, to name just two – the century-long tradition of House speakers being quickly and unanimously elected by their party has been similarly blown to pieces.
It can be hard to understand what’s going on. But as a political scientist who co-authored a textbook called “Congress Explained,” I have an obligation to give it my best shot. Here are three of the most revealing elements of the ongoing speaker kerfuffle, and how political science can help people – including me – understand them.
1. Jordan’s attempts to win over his conference
For a member of Congress with a reputation as a far-right “attack dog,” Jordan has spent a lot of the past few days on what congressional experts like to call “herding cats” – leaders getting their rank-and-file party members in alignment for a vote, even when many of those members want different things.
To get members to go their way, party leaders in Congress frequently use a combination of offers and threats. They can, for example, offer rank-and-filers desired committee assignments or attention to their pet issues.
Alternatively, they can encourage – implicitly or explicitly – someone to challenge the member in a primary, or withhold fundraising support, which is a main responsibility of party leadership. So far, Jordan appears to have favored this more aggressive approach in what The New York Times called a “pressure campaign” to round up support from moderate members still unsure about him.
Whether the pressure tactics end up being enough for Jordan to become speaker is an open question. But if he does win the gavel, he’ll need to work even harder to win over his colleagues for impending budget negotiations and to deal with international crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. And fundraising promises or threats may not be enough.
2. The votes cast for non-Jordan Republicans
In a first round of voting on Oct. 17, Jordan fell short of the majority required to become speaker of the house. Not surprisingly, no Democrats backed him. But he also faced 20 Republican holdouts. Even more Republicans voted for someone else on Oct. 18. And those holdouts didn’t all vote for the same person. Who they did vote for can reveal a lot about the internal dynamics in the Republican Party.
Most of the Republican holdouts voted for either McCarthy or House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who as recently as last week was touted as McCarthy’s heir. Those members have been extensively quoted as having major problems not just with Jordan as a potential speaker but with the chaos introduced to the broader legislative process by far-right members like Jordan ally Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz.
Although Zeldin – or any other person, even if they are not a member of the House – can be elected speaker under House rules, the votes cast in his direction were purely symbolic. But they were also telling.
These New York Republican representatives, many of whom come from districts won by Democratic President Joe Biden, are sending the message that they and other Republicans elected in competitive districts are the only reason Republicans have a majority in the House at all. They have a point: There is significant evidence that in the 2022 election, farther right candidates, particularly those who denied the outcome of the 2020 election, were less popular with voters than their moderate counterparts – and almost cost Republicans the House majority.
The votes for Zeldin, therefore, are a warning to fellow Republicans from the moderates in New York, insisting they not be taken for granted.
3. The floor action of Congress’ most extreme members
C-SPAN is not known for its exciting television, but political observers on Tuesday afternoon were treated to a few dramatic moments that – aside from their entertainment value – are emblematic of some of the larger dysfunction and political dynamics that have come to define both parties in recent years.
One instance came during California Democrat Pete Aguilar’s Oct. 17 nomination speech for Democratic speaker candidate Hakeem Jeffries of New York, in which Aguilar noted that Jordan has yet to pass a bill out of the chamber since 2007, when he was first sworn in.
In response, far-right Republican members Gaetz and Lauren Boebert of Colorado reportedly applauded.
According to the research, Aguilar is not wrong about Jordan’s reputation: The Center for Effective Lawmaking, an academic research center out of Vanderbilt University, ranks Jordan near the bottom of his Republican conference on a whole battery of figures measuring legislative effectiveness.
That doesn’t mean that Jordan can’t be an effective speaker. But the willingness of the party to nominate someone with such a thin record of achievement – and Gaetz’s and Boebert’s open enthusiasm for the comment about Jordan’s lack of action – is a monument to the increasingly obstructionist politics that continue to plague Congress.