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The history of a contentious U.S. Congress

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

Kevin McCarthy's 15 rounds of voting were the most any speaker has endured since 1859. It took 44 rounds back then, and it took place as the country was edging toward civil war. Let's dig into what that history tells us now and what it might mean for McCarthy. NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us this morning. Hey, Ron. Fifteen ballots seems like a lot. It was a lot in terms of recent congressional history, no?

RON ELVING, BYLINE: It was, indeed. There had been only one occasion, Dwane, since the Civil War where it took more than a single round of voting to elect a speaker. And that one exception had been a hundred years ago, in 1923. Back then, the Republican Party was dealing with deep divisions within its own ranks and also working out its response in response or reaction to a rather disappointing election. So a time much like our own.

BROWN: Yeah, and a hundred years doesn't seem like that long ago now when we look at what happened over the weekend. But while we're counting, Ron, what was the record for this kind of - I heard it described as mud fighting. What was the longest it ever took to get a speaker?

ELVING: Well, they went 44 rounds in 1859, which was the last speakership election to happen before Abraham Lincoln became president.

BROWN: Wow.

ELVING: But a few years earlier, in 1855, the House had needed 133 rounds of voting to elect a speaker, and that process went on literally for months.

BROWN: Wow. So protracted, took a long time. Could this be called a dress rehearsal for the war that's about to come?

ELVING: Well, absolutely. And back then, they were building up to the Civil War that had been building for decades. Slavery was the reason it took 63 rounds to get a speaker in 1849, when Congress was fixated on the expansion of slavery in the new territories following the Mexican-American War that had just ended. But even 30 years earlier than that, Congress had been hung up for 22 rounds as the North and South were hashing out what became the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

BROWN: So, Ron, it seems like from what you just said that the - after the Civil War, the process of actually choosing a speaker became less contentious?

ELVING: There were still plenty of fights and rivalries, but as a rule, they were resolved before the whole House met to vote for speaker.

BROWN: Yeah.

ELVING: They were taken care of inside the parties. And after the war, the number of parties in Congress was greatly reduced. Basically, they got down to the two we have today. And that meant that most of the time, one party or the other had a clear majority, and that party's leader would be speaker.

BROWN: And often, these speakers were quite powerful even back then - right? - either as allies or rivals of the president.

ELVING: Yes. In the last 150 years, they often had enormous influence. And in recent years, we've seen speakers trying to restore some of that stature to the office but with mixed success. One big reason is that contemporary members of Congress don't feel as much obligation to the party, and they don't feel as much obligation to the leadership to do what they're asked to do.

BROWN: Yeah. Ron, so it took 15 rounds this time to elect McCarthy. Why don't we see this kind of unanimous vote for the speaker anymore?

ELVING: We don't see it anymore because the people individually in Congress see themselves as more important than they see the party and its larger agenda.

BROWN: NPR's Ron Elving. Thank you, buddy.

ELVING: Thank you, Dwane.

BROWN: Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dwane Brown
Dwane Brown is a multiple award-winning newscaster for NPR and joined the network in December 2015. He is the first newscaster to broadcast from NPR West in Culver City, California. His newscasts air during All Things Considered.
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.