Can Kevin McCarthy Buck History to Become House Speaker?

The California Republican is in a good position, but it hasn't been a lucky one for his recent predecessors.

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House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, speaks at the U.S. Capitol earlier this year.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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?

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