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The Rise of Speaker Longworth: Velvet on Iron | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives

On December 3, 1923, just hours into Opening Day of the 68th Congress (1923–1925), Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, the newly installed House Republican Leader, surveyed his fractious majority as it deadlocked over the election of the Speaker.Over the course of four votes that day, a small but determined cohort of progressive Republicans had stifled the party’s leadership, including Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts. Gillett had served as Speaker for the previous two Congresses and now sought a third term in the chair.At 3:46 p.m., however, Longworth interrupted the proceedings and moved to adjourn the House. “It seems entirely evident that no good purpose can be served by having another ballot tonight,” he said. “Our hands are tied; we have no recourse.”The clash between progressive Republicans and mainline GOP stalwarts had been years in the making and erupted as a major early test of Longworth’s leadership. But for Longworth it was also edifying and set the foundation for a period in House history in which the Speakership grew more powerful than it had in over a decade. Starting in 1923, Longworth set out to ensure that so long as he wielded power, he never lacked the recourse that seemed in short supply on that December afternoon.The ProgressivesDuring the first two decades of the twentieth century, GOP progressives had been a small but vocal minority in the House. Known popularly as “Insurgents,” they had channeled elements of the era’s wider progressive movement into a reform crusade on Capitol Hill. Across the country, progressive officials responded to industrialization, large-scale immigration, population growth, and the sudden emergence of urbanized modernity by legislating against what they considered to be the excesses of a capitalist system that empowered wealthy captains of industry at the expense of everyday farmers and laborers.In Congress, Insurgent lawmakers worked in this strain of progressivism to address unemployment and the effects of economic boom-bust cycles; labor strikes and worker protections; immigration; environmental conservation; and food and water quality issues. Progressive reformers also sought “direct democracy”—transferring political power into the hands of the popular majority and away from special interests and entrenched party bosses. Congressional Insurgents—many of whom hailed from the upper Midwest—railed against the old-guard who, they argued, were beholden to the banks, railroads, and corporations.They also sought to democratize Congress’s rules and procedures to speed the passage of reforms. In March 1910, several dozen Insurgents allied with Democrats to remove the autocratic Speaker Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois from the chairmanship of the Rules Committee, which determined the guidelines for legislative debate on the floor. That watershed event—known afterward as the “Cannon Revolt”—significantly weakened the Speakership. Within a few years, some of the Speakership’s other exclusive powers—such as legislative agenda setting and committee assignments—devolved to other entities in the House as well.Longworth’s AscendanceNick Longworth, an establishment scion, first entered the House in 1903 and came up in the cauldron of Progressive Era reforms. Though his hail-fellow-well-met demeanor masked it, Longworth had a keen political instinct.Longworth came from a wealthy family and never lacked for opportunity. He was cultured and quick witted, a virtuoso on the violin and a raconteur with expensive tastes. Longworth graduated from Harvard, and later earned a law degree from the Cincinnati School of Law in 1894. He quickly gravitated to politics. With the backing of a local Republican boss, Longworth rose through the local GOP ranks. In 1898, he won a seat on the Cincinnati board of education. A year later he moved to the Ohio house of representatives, and shortly after that to the state senate.In 1902, Longworth was elected to the House from his hometown of Cincinnati. In Congress, Longworth was known as a party stalwart and loyal follower of Uncle Joe Cannon. In 1910, he had a front row seat to Cannon’s downfall, and the experience informed Longworth’s politics going forward.Even as a rank-and-file lawmaker, Longworth enjoyed a national profile. In 1905, he married Alice Roosevelt, daughter of then-President Theodore Roosevelt. The press fawned over the union, but theirs was far from a storybook marriage or, even, political partnership. Longworth did not share Alice’s or Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive inclinations. In 1912, Longworth supported Republican President William H. Taft in his re-election bid against Roosevelt, who had come out of retirement to run on the third-party, progressive Bull Moose ticket. Back home, Longworth also struggled against the progressive tide drawing votes from his Republican candidacy that year. On Election Day, he lost to a Democratic challenger by 101 votes.Longworth reclaimed his House seat two years later, but the 1912 election had nearly ended his marriage. Once back in the House, Longworth reclaimed his seat on the Ways and Means Committee where he became a tariff expert and sharpened his skill for finding consensus and brokering deals.In 1919, when Republicans held the House majority for the first time in a decade, Longworth orchestrated what was then the biggest deal of his career. Ahead of the Speaker election to open the new GOP majority for the 66th Congress (1919–1921), many Republicans balked at the frontrunner: James R. Mann of Illinois, the longtime GOP Leader and former close confidante to Speaker Cannon. Mann was seen as a “reactionary,” who, like Cannon, would seize the legislative process and rule arbitrarily. Although some lawmakers championed Longworth as an alternative for Speaker, Longworth threw his support behind Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, who was once described as a “docile party elder” palatable to GOP moderates. Behind Longworth’s leadership, Gillett was elected Speaker.For his efforts, Longworth expected to secure the position of Majority Leader. But Mann managed to stack the GOP committee responsible for making party appointments with allies. Longworth received a seat on the GOP Steering Committee, but Mann’s forces anointed 58-year-old Frank Wheeler Mondell of Wyoming as Majority Leader.Revolt ReduxOver the next four years, Longworth worked to solidify support. Republicans kept the House in the 67th Congress (1921–1923), but following the 1922 elections, the GOP’s commanding 302-seat majority collapsed into a slender 225-to-207 seat advantage. The small margin meant the roughly 20 progressive Insurgents heading into the 68th Congress in December 1923 suddenly held the balance of power in the closely divided House.By Opening Day, Republican leadership also looked much different. James Mann had died and Mondell had left the House after an unsuccessful run for the Senate. With Mondell gone, Longworth claimed the Majority Leader’s office on December 1 by a nearly unanimous voice vote in the party conference. But that same day, progressives flexed their political muscle in the conference vote for the party’s nominee for Speaker. Twenty-four Republicans—including the entire Insurgent bloc—voted against the incumbent, Gillett, who was seeking a third term as Speaker. Gillett only needed a majority of the party to win the nomination, but on the House Floor he would need a majority of those in attendance. If 24 Republicans opposed his election on the floor, Gillett would lose the Speakership when the House was set to convene two days later.“We have got the votes and the House will not be organized until our demands are met,” crowed Wisconsin Representative John Nelson, the Insurgents’ leader. “I am very pleased with the situation. It is not hard to see that we hold the balance of power.”From “Blockade” to DealTwo days later, on December 3, the GOP’s long-simmering internal rift spilled into public view on the House Floor. The Republican Conference announced Gillett as its nominee; Democrats nominated Finis Garrett of Tennessee. Two other lawmakers received nominations: Insurgent Henry Allen Cooper of Wisconsin, and Republican Martin Madden of Illinois, who quickly told the House he was not a candidate for Speaker.When the balloting began neither Gillett nor Garrett cobbled together the necessary votes to win. The first ballot resulted in 198 votes for Gillett, 195 for the Garrett, 17 for Cooper, and five for Madden; four Members voted “present.”The entire 11-man Wisconsin delegation (10 Republicans and one Socialist) withheld its support from Gillett: nine voted for Cooper; Cooper and Victor Berger, the Milwaukee Socialist, voted present. Six Minnesotans (four Republicans and two Farmer Laborites) joined the Wisconsin renegades in supporting Cooper, as well as North Dakota Republican James Sinclair, and the only Insurgent from outside the Upper Midwest, New York Republican Fiorello La Guardia.The House held three more votes for Speaker that day, but the bloc stayed intact. After nearly four hours, the House adjourned until noon the following day. The Baltimore Sun noted that the Insurgents “have proved today that they have mastered the art of blockade.” The next day, December 4, saw four more inconclusive votes in a two-and-a-half-hour session.Later that evening, Longworth hosted Representative Nelson in his office for two hours where they brokered a truce. The pair made for an odd couple—the aristocratic Cincinnatian bedecked in formal evening attire, and the sturdy Nelson whom a reporter described as just “one of ‘the boys’” and “an amicable, bald-headed, sandyish man of Scandinavian origin, agreeable of voice and handshake.”In exchange for the Insurgents’ votes, Longworth suggested the House would operate under the old rules from the prior Congress for a 30-day period, during which time rank-and-file Members could offer amendments to the new rules which would be debated and receive a vote on the House Floor. Longworth promised only votes, and there was no guarantee that the progressives would win their desired results. But for Nelson, that was enough.When Nelson announced the deal on the floor the next day, Democrats ridiculed it. John Nance Garner of Texas—one of Longworth’s drinking pals and a future Speaker himself—asked the Majority Leader if Nelson’s summary was correct. “I am in accord with the interpretation,” Longworth replied.Turning to Nelson, Garner asked with mock incredulity if he “willingly submitted to this outrage?”Cooper, the grizzled House veteran, rose from his seat to explain the Insurgents’ objective by recalling when he and other progressives had ousted Cannon from the chairmanship of the Rules Committee. Cooper said the Cannon Revolt occurred “not because any of us had ceased to be Republicans, not because any of us were anarchists, and not because any of us, as some of the papers have been saying, are bandits; not at all, but simply because we wished to give the Representatives of the American people on this floor an opportunity to represent the constituents who honored them by sending them here.”That same spirit, Cooper insisted, lay behind their effort in 1923. “All that we have sought to do was to secure a reasonable and fair opportunity to propose amendments to the rules,” Cooper said, “not to coerce amendments, not to demand amendments, but to present amendments, and to have a reasonable and fair discussion of our proposals in this Chamber. That is all. That is representative government, and anything else is tyranny.”Following Cooper’s remarks, the House proceeded to its ninth ballot for Speaker. The Insurgents rejoined the GOP fold, giving Gillett the votes he needed to win, 215 to 197.An Uneasy AllianceIn the end, both progressive and mainline Republicans seemed placated. The Insurgents would have their shot at amendments. And Nelson won a spot on the Rules Committee, giving him influence over which bills made it to the floor and the terms of debate. Among the rules reforms that soon passed was a modified discharge petition requirement, championed by progressives, that significantly lowered the threshold required to wrest bills out of the hands of obstinate committees and bring them onto the floor for debate by the full House.For his part, Longworth burnished the powers of the Majority Leader’s office. And as House Republicans proceeded to enact their legislative agenda, Longworth boasted that the negotiations among his conference paled in comparison to the situation in the Senate, where Insurgents and regulars would clash for another month. Longworth noted his House majority was ready to act. “We can go ahead in this session and do the business of the people so satisfactorily,” Longworth forecasted, “that it will be admitted from now on that the House is the real medium for the translation into legislation of the hopes and desires of the American people.”When the House began to churn out legislation at a much faster clip than in previous Congresses, the press applauded him for overseeing the House’s transformation into “one of the most efficient legislative machines in contemporary American history.”The deal Longworth cut with the Insurgents had elevated his already considerable public profile. His velvet diplomatic touch had pacified the progressive holdouts. But soon another test—one that revealed his steely resolve—lay ahead.Sources: Congressional Record, House, 68th Cong., 1st sess. (5 December 1923): 5–15; Baltimore Sun, 4 December 1923; Boston Daily Globe, 9 December 1923; New York Times, 2, 5, 16, and 23 December 1923; Washington Post, 4 December 1923; Donald C. Bacon, “Longworth, Nicholas,” in American National Biography 13 (New York: Oxford University Press); Donald C. Bacon, “Nicholas Longworth: The Genial Czar,” in Masters of the House: Congressional Leadership over Two Centuries, ed. Roger H. Davidson, Susan Webb Hammond, and Raymond W. Smock (New York: Westview Press, 1998); David T. Canon et al., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789–1946, vol. 3 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2002); Richard B. Cheney and Lynne V. Cheney, Kings of the Hill: Power and Personality in the House of Representatives (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1983); Stacey A. Cordery, Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker (New York: Viking, 2007); Clara Longworth De Chambrun, The Making of Nicholas Longworth: Annals of an American Family (New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc., 1933); Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998); Lewis L. Gould, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans (New York: Random House, Inc., 2003); Scott William Rager, “Uncle Joe Cannon: The Brakeman of the House of Representatives, 1903–1911,” in Masters of the House: Congressional Leadership over Two Centuries, ed. Roger H. Davidson, Susan Webb Hammond, and Raymond W. Smock (New York: Westview Press, 1998); David Thelen, Robert M. LaFollette and the Insurgent Spirit (Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Company, 1976); Nancy C. Unger, Fighting Bob LaFollette: The Righteous Reformer (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003).