Nothing's for certain, of course, but the No. 2 House Republican, Kevin McCarthy, appears to have a solid shot at becoming the next No. 1.
Speaker John Boehner's Friday announcement that he will step down at the end of October appears to give the California Republican that inside track—especially since popular Ways and Means Chairman and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan says he's not interested. While McCarthy himself had not said as of Friday night what he will do and at least one other House Republican, Dan Webster of Florida, has already tossed his hat into the race, several rank-and-file members listed McCarthy as the obvious successor. And Boehner added his endorsement
McCarthy might not be the first choice of restive party hard-liners who chronically attacked Boehner as speaker, but the 50-year-old he does enjoy the advantages of leadership incumbency, a well-funded leadership PAC that he's used to help the elect the members who will be voting for him, and time spent building relationships throughout the Republican conference.
The biggest challenge to McCarthy's ascension may be recent history.
In the past quarter-century, being the House majority leader has become anything but a sure step to becoming speaker. Only one of McCarthy’s seven predecessors in the House’s No. 2 leadership perch—Boehner—has gone on to take the gavel, and even Boehner’s path was not a direct one. While individual personalities and their foibles have played a part in this, the shift also coincides with a resurgence between the two major parties of competitive control of the House chamber after what had been four decades of Democratic dominance. The Republicans' ascendence into the House majority has been accompanied by revved-up intra-party warfare and turbulence, and deteriorating reverence for the committee system and seniority.
In fact, since 1989, when Democrat Tom Foley ascended from majority leader to the speakership (his election to that post by colleagues came after an ethics scandal caused Speaker Jim Wright to step down), it has become rare indeed for anyone to duplicate his trajectory from being No. 2 to No. 1. The subsequent majority leaders who did not move up are Democrat Dick Gephardt; Republicans Dick Armey, Tom Delay, and Roy Blunt; Democrat Steny Hoyer; and Republican Eric Cantor, prevented from succeeding Boehner by his ignominious defeat last year in a Virginia Republican primary for his congressional seat. None of the three speakers since Foley other than Boehner—Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, and Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, the current minority leader—ever served as a majority leader.
It hadn’t always been this way.
Created in 1899, the job of House majority leader as the No. 2 party leadership post had established a clear history as a presumed step to the speakership. The job involves scheduling legislation for floor action, setting the weekly and annual legislative agendas, gauging the sentiment of caucus or conference members, and in more recent years, being a visible messenger for the party’s positions, or even an attack dog.
Starting in 1925 and lasting through 1995, nine of the 13 speakers first had served as majority leaders. Those 70 years included some memorable speakers who first served as majority leaders, such as Foley, James Wright, Tip O’Neill, Carl Albert, John McCormick, Sam Rayburn, Henry Rainey, Joseph Byrns, William Bankhead, and Nicholas Longworth. So regimented had the succession from majority leader to speaker become at one point that three of them—Byrns, Bankhead, and Rayburn—were chosen to be speaker after their predecessors as speaker died in office, noted Hastert.
But when the so-called “Gingrich revolution” ended some 40 years of Democratic Party dominance over the House in 1995 and Foley’s own departure that year after he failed to win re-election in his Washington state district, the predictable leadership succession ended.
Gephardt, who had been the majority leader, instead became the Democrats’ minority leader. And his party never reclaimed the majority before he announced he would not run again for that job in 2002, and Pelosi was chosen to succeed him as minority leader. On the Republican side, when Gingrich was forced out as speaker after the party’s poor performance in the 1998 elections, his majority leader, Dick Armey, failed to win the race to be his successor. Hastert vaulted from chief deputy whip after the Republicans' first choice, Bob Livingston, has to resign before even claiming the post because of a sex scandal.
After Armey retired from Congress in 2003, Tom DeLay, a fellow Texan, succeeded him as majority leader. But in 2005, DeLay was indicted in 2005 by a Texas grand jury on a conspiracy charge stemming from a campaign finance investigation, forcing him to cede his leadership post—temporarily, he said at the time—to Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri. By early 2006, with his legal issues still pending, DeLay announced he would not seek to return to his majority leader post. It was then that Boehner, who had been a Republican Conference chair under the Gingrich regime but lost that leadership spot in 1998, won the support of his colleagues for the majority leader’s post, narrowly outmaneuvering Blunt.
But with the loss of control by Republicans of the House as a result of the midterm elections later in 2006, Pelosi would become speaker, and Boehner had to settle for being chosen as the GOP’s minority leader. It's from that position that he rose to the speakership after Pelosi lost the speakership when her party lost control of the House in 2010.
One factor upsetting the historic chain of succession is a crumbling committee system. Leadership now plays a much stronger and direct role in setting the agenda and negotiating legislative measures, usurping some of the chairmen’s previous domain. That, in turn, has undermined the path to power that once had guided ambitious legislators up the ranks to majority leader and then speaker. And it can stir up rank-and-file resentment, when a party leaader inevitably must disappoint his constituents.
McCarthy might very well break the recent trend against majority leader becoming speaker. If he does, how long might it be before McCarthy, like Boehner, becomes the target of too much party disappointment?