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House GOP rebels recall a distant era when dissidents rose up against 'Czar Cannon'

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speaks with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on the House floor about the 14th round of voting for speaker on Jan. 6, 2023, at the U.S. Capitol.
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speaks with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on the House floor about the 14th round of voting for speaker on Jan. 6, 2023, at the U.S. Capitol.

For those following the continuing crisis on Capitol Hill that has the House Republican majority threatening to force a government shutdown, the term "the motion to vacate the chair" is no doubt familiar.

Vacating a chair may sound like the simple act of standing up. But in the specialized language of congressional procedure, it means standing up to the presiding officer — implicitly challenging that officer's right to preside by threatening to replace the officer altogether.

The phrase, and the procedure, had been bandied about earlier this year in the January melee that finally elevated Speaker Kevin McCarthy to his present job. Rebels from the House Freedom Caucus did not want to allow the California Republican, their titular leader for the last four years, to grasp "the big gavel" unless promised a chance to force his removal.

They wanted any member of the House to be able to force a vote on the speaker's continuation by making a simple "motion to vacate the chair."

"Suicide," said more than a few veterans of Capitol Hill. No speaker would allow that. But before he finally won his job on the 15th ballot, McCarthy had apparently assured his skeptics that the tool would be available as they wished.

And it has been a touchstone ever since for some of the most recalcitrant holdouts against McCarthy's leadership. One of these, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, told Chad Pergram of FOX News the motion to vacate was "not something that we just put on a shelf to admire ... we intend to use it." Gaetz alsotold CNN that he would use the motion "over and over again until it works."

Earlier, Gaetz had warned that any move by McCarthy to bring a short-term, stopgap spending measure to the floor to forestall a government shutdown at month's end would trigger a motion to vacate immediately. He called it a case of"shot, chaser."

Such talk has been heard throughout the session, including when McCarthy was negotiating with Senate leaders and President Biden over an increase in the national debt ceiling. Lifting that lid has been rather perfunctory in recent years, but it became a potential crisis point when a cadre of members in the House was willing to use it as a hostage in negotiations on spending.

McCarthy managed to outmaneuver that cadre on the debt ceiling, which was raised for two years in the spring. The resistance vowed to get payback in the fall. Their current refusal to vote with McCarthy gives him a choice: Yield to the hardest core within his own party, or try a work-around with at least a few votes from Democrats. It was clear that the latter option risked a motion to vacate the chair.

McCarthy thought he had the votes for a stopgap spending measure to keep the government open past Sept. 30. This week, it became apparent he did not. He had a meeting late Thursday with Gaetz to seek a way forward.

At week's end, online news media were asking bluntly who was in charge. "How Matt Gaetz Seized the House," blared the Friday morning headline in Politico.

The threat of a motion to vacate the chair was driving the drama once again.

Speakers have always struggled to keep their most aggressive ideologues in line, especially when their margin of majority control has been narrow. Right now McCarthy's is in low single digits. On one procedural test vote this past week, the speaker thought he had corralled the last few strays. But when it came to the floor, two other previously committed members broke away.

The temptation to get to a majority by adding in a few Democrats may seem irresistible; but if he does, it could be "shot, chaser."

Historical roots in party divides and divisive personalities

A motion to vacate last darkened the horizon in 2015, when House hardliners used it against Speaker John Boehner in another budget stalemate. Boehner had become speaker with the "Tea Party" surge of GOP strength that recaptured the House majority in 2010.

Boehner had risen to that perch over years of patient persistence, but by the fall of 2015 he was through with it. When intraparty rivals began talking about vacating the chair, Boehner simply resigned, saying he did not wish to put the House through a trauma such as had happened "a hundred years ago."

That was a reference to the watershed House rebellion against Speaker Joseph G. Cannon in 1910, who was also known as Joe, Uncle Joe and "Czar Cannon." In our time it is difficult to imagine the degree of power exercised by speakers back then. But by the late 1800s it had become so extreme as to be compared to the absolute authority exercised for centuries by the Russian monarchs known as czars.

Republican Rep. Joseph Cannon of Illinois lost much of his power  as House speaker after a revolt in 1910.
/ Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Republican Rep. Joseph Cannon of Illinois lost much of his power as House speaker after a revolt in 1910.

The first speaker attacked for being a "czar" was Thomas Brackett Reed, a Maine Republican who dominated the chamber as few had before him. He bequeathed to Cannon a system of parliamentary devices and insider agreements that allowed the speaker to control the Rules Committee and strongly influence the other committees.

Cannon expanded on "Reed's Rules": He could make himself chairman of the Rules Committee, appoint the other committee chairs, determine who would serve on the various committees, decide which bills would reach the floor, what amendments would be in order and who would be permitted to offer them — or even give a speech. He also determined the winning side on voice votes and dictated the calendar. It was said that one member had replied to a request for a copy of the rules of the House by mailing back a photograph of Joe Cannon.

Cannon was not using his power just to run a tight procedural ship. He was wielding it as an instrument with impact far beyond the Congress itself, a weapon to defeat any policy changes or reforms he opposed. He was often at loggerheads with President Theodore Roosevelt and anyone else in either party who entertained progressive ideas.

Although personally affable and well-liked throughout his career, Cannon resisted government regulation of business, supported high protective tariffs and frowned upon change in general. It was said that had he been present at the Creation he would have voted against it.

Aggressive progressives bring conflict to boiling point

All this reached a boiling point in 1910 when Cannon was in his fourth term as speaker. After two years out of the White House, Roosevelt was disappointed in his successor and angling for another term. Progressives were on the march in many states, and their presence in both parties in the House created a power base for men such as George W. Norris of Nebraska, who would later serve five terms in the Senate.

Norris, a Republican, became the point man for opposition to Cannon. One day in March of 1910, Norris watched as another member sought permission to bring a floor resolution regarding the 1910 census to the floor that was not part of the usual order. He argued that as a Constitution-mandated function, the census was not subject to normal House rules. Cannon allowed it.

Seeing an opening, Norris pounced. On the next day he rose to say he had another resolution based in a constitutional privilege. Not knowing what it was, Cannon allowed the motion. Norris then proceeded to lay out a new plan for the Rules Committee, which would not be speaker-appointed but elected by the whole House. It was to be nearly equal in party representation and have the power to choose its own chairman. And in the most direct defiance of Cannon of all, Norris' vision of the new Rules Committee explicitly barred the speaker from serving as its chairman.

"The hall was suddenly charged with electricity," writes congressional historian Alvin M. Josephy Jr. "Through the newspapers, the whole country watched the drama of the sudden revolution against Cannonism."

All over but the shouting — and generations of fallout

One of Cannon's loyalists swiftly brought a point of order against Norris. But it was St. Patrick's Day and Cannon soon realized many of his usual backers among the rank-and-file members were missing. He postponed any ruling on Norris' resolution, but he kept the session open for two days and two nights while his minions tried to marshal the speaker's forces.

Meanwhile, Norris and the Democratic leader, Champ Clark of Missouri, were also beating the bushes for missing members and rallying to the cause. Cannon could soon see he had been out-maneuvered. He tried to strike a deal with Norris, then ruled Norris' resolution out of order. Clark then appealed the ruling — noting that Cannon had allowed the preceding census resolution on much the same constitutional argument just days earlier.

In an atmosphere of tense confrontation, the whole House voted on Clark's appeal and agreed to overrule the speaker 182 to 163. Norris' dissidents and the Democrats then approved an amended version of the original resolution on an even stronger vote of 191 to 156. The reformers had overwhelmed the all-powerful czar.

In the stunned moments that followed, some of Cannon's supporters forced a vote to keep Cannon in his role as presiding officer — albeit with greatly diminished powers and the knowledge that his powers could be further curtailed by votes of the membership.

Cannon's time with the gavel was not over, but his days as an autocrat were done. Thereafter, power in the chamber gravitated to the chairmen of the various committees. And those positions were filled not by the speaker but by seniority. That reform would come to have many unintended consequences of its own. But it would be half a century before speakers began to address the imbalances inherent in that system and reassert their own central role.

The Cannon House Office Building as seen in 2015. It was named for the former speaker in 1962.
Andrew Harnik / AP
The Cannon House Office Building as seen in 2015. It was named for the former speaker in 1962.

Cannon himself was reelected in 1910, but his party lost the majority and Clark became speaker in 1911. These were the peak years of the so-called Progressive Era, which produced the progressive income tax, voting rights for women and the popular election of senators — among other reforms.

Cannon lost his own seat in the election of 1912, even as Woodrow Wilson was becoming the first new Democrat in the White House since the 1880s. But Cannon went home to Illinois and got elected again in 1914, serving until 1923. When he left Washington, he had served longer than any member of Congress up to that time and was featured in a new magazine devoted to national news. The black-and-white drawing of his bewhiskered, sadly wistful face was thefirst cover story in Time.

Cannon died at the age of 90 in 1926. The first office building for House members and staff, completed in 1908 while Cannon was still speaker, was named for him in 1962.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 22, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous photo caption incorrectly said Republican Rep. Joseph Cannon of Illinois was ousted as House speaker after a revolt in 2010. In fact, he lost much of his power after a revolt in 1910 but remained speaker until the following year.
Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.