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
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