In an unprecedented turn of events, U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-California) was removed from his seat as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in a 216-210 vote on Tuesday. It was the first time a House speaker, one of the top positions in U.S. politics, has been unseated in this way.
C. Lawrence Evans, Newton Family Professor of Government at William & Mary, spoke with W&M News about the end of McCarthy’s 269-day reign as speaker.
Evans is a specialist in American national politics. He teaches courses on Congress, the presidency and legislative-executive relations and has authored three books: “The Whips: Building Party Coalitions in Congress,” “Congress Under Fire: Reform Politics and the Republican Majority” and “Leadership in Committee: A Comparative Analysis of Leadership Behavior in the U.S. Senate.”
Democracy is at the forefront of Evans’ work, and it is one of the cornerstone initiatives of William & Mary’s Vision 2026 strategic plan.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Thanks for taking a few minutes to speak to us about this historic removal. How did this happen?
A: It goes back a generation, really, to a transformation that has been taking place within the Republican Party, particularly in the House. An insurgent wing has been growing in strength since the 1990s when Newt Gingrich was speaker. Republicans generally are a party that is distrustful about government for ideological and parochial reasons, and a faction of the party has grown very, very skeptical about government to the extent to that they want to essentially throw a monkey wrench into the gears and do whatever they can to counter what they view as a gradual drift toward a bigger and more activist national government.
Q: How did this faction work to vote McCarthy out?
A: The speaker of the House is a constitutional office, which means to be speaker you’ve got to get a majority of the votes cast on the floor. He had a hard time getting that in January because some members of the insurgent faction – the media likes to call them ultra conservatives – refused to back him at first, and a small group of them finally brought him down last week.
In particular, the faction was displeased about the recent vote to keep the federal government open, passing a continuing resolution to kick the can down the road for 45 days. That passed with mostly Democratic votes. One Democrat voted against it along with 90 Republicans, including the insurgent faction, and the conservatives are angry that McCarthy allowed a floor vote on a measure that a lot of Republicans despised. For the GOP opponents, that was the rationale for removing him from the speakership. For the Democrats who voted to vacate, it was about party and the fact that they adamantly oppose McCarthy on just about everything else.
Q: What is the process for relieving a speaker of his duties?
A: The mechanism they used was a motion to vacate, which is part of House rules. Any individual House member can move to vacate the chair, and if it passes, the speaker isn’t speaker anymore. And it’s a privileged motion, so the House has to act within a couple of days. When the Democrats were in the majority, the motion could not be made without leadership backing. But to get enough support to become speaker last January, McCarthy agreed to a rule change such that anyone could bring up a motion to vacate. Sowing the seeds of his own demise, if you will. So, the insurgent faction within the House GOP offered the motion, and when the final roll call occurred, it passed with eight Republicans and all the Democrats voting yes.
Q: How often are there motions to vacate?
A: Hardly ever. Mark Meadows, back when he was in the House of Representatives, filed one to vacate the chair during John Boehner’s speakership, but it didn’t come to a vote. He didn’t draft it as a privileged resolution, so the attempt wasn’t all that serious. Mostly he used it as leverage. The last time there was a meaningful motion to vacate was during the Joseph Cannon speakership over a hundred years ago. Cannon, who was then being challenged by a coalition of progressives, offered the motion to vacate himself to demonstrate his clout within the House. And that motion to vacate lost, which was indicative of Cannon’s power. There’s no precedent for what happened to McCarthy.
Q: What’s next? How long could it take to find a replacement?
A: They’ve recessed for a week, with the expectation that Republicans will politic behind the scenes for a few days and then have a party meeting next Tuesday. If a consensus is forming around a McCarthy replacement, they’ll have some votes inside the House Republican party, and then on to a vote of the full chamber. Right now, a lot of attention is being given to Steve Scalise, currently the majority leader, but he has serious health issues. Jim Jordan, the chair of the judiciary committee, is also being floated as a serious alternative. Tom Emmer from Minnesota, who’s the House majority whip, is getting some attention, but he’s a more inside-the-institution sort of guy who has endorsed Scalise.
Q: What could the long-term impacts of this be?
A: I don’t think that this dissension within the Republican Conference in the House is what’s really critical. It’s the distance between the parties that mostly matters and what’s going to happen in 45 days. The Republican Party may be swinging against further aid to Ukraine. There’s a division in the party right now, and people like McCarthy support aid to Ukraine, but a lot of others, particularly the MAGA crowd, do not, and they seem to be growing in number. That policy decision is enormously consequential. Then there’s the budget and the functioning of government and keeping the day-to-day operations moving. All that’s at stake too. And then of course, all the other challenges we face as a country. There has to be a mechanism through which the House and the Senate work together or the process starts to shut down, regardless of how this whole speakership contest works out. Unfortunately, I don’t see how we’re any closer to the kind of cross-partisan accommodation that’s necessary given the nature of our government and the political configurations of the day.
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist