Kevin McCarthy and a History of Prior US House Service of Newly Elected Speakers

The 19 speakers elected since the turn of the 20th Century averaged nearly 24 years of service in the chamber before their first day as speaker – nearly three times that of McCarthy

kevinmccarthy20The retirement announcement by John Boehner last Friday that he would resign his position as Speaker of the House on October 30th as well as his seat in Congress was quickly followed by reports documenting the rapid rise to the top by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California who is the favorite to win the speakership next month.

When McCarthy was elected majority leader after Eric Cantor’s primary loss last June, Smart Politics was first to report that McCarthy was the least tenured floor leader in the history of the House of Representatives by more than a year at 7 years, 6 months, and 29 days.

And now McCarthy is the favorite to become the least tenured speaker since Georgia Democrat Charles Crisp in 1891.

On the day of Boehner’s exit, McCarthy will have served 8 years, 9 months, and 27 days in the chamber (3,222 days) which is 21 more days than Crisp had under his belt when he took over for Maine Republican Thomas Reed after the GOP lost nearly 100 seats in the 1890 midterms.

Overall, McCarthy would actually rank just outside the top half in terms of prior U.S. House service should he become speaker.

Of the 53 U.S. Representatives to serve in the position, 27 had more experience than McCarthy upon first becoming speaker while 26 had less.

Despite that statistic, the election of McCarthy to House Speaker would certainly be a reversal of more than a century of House practice.

A Smart Politics analysis finds that the last 19 speakers elected in the 20th and 21st Centuries from Republican Joseph Cannon in 1903 through John Boehner in 2011 had served an average of more than 23.5 years in the chamber (8,617 days) prior to their first day as speaker.

That is nearly three times the length of McCarthy’s tenure heading into the October vote.

By contrast, the 34 speakers elected in the 18th and 19th Centuries had served an average of just shy of seven and one-half years (2,722 days) prior to their first day as speaker.

John McCormackThe speaker who had the longest wait before ascending to the chamber’s top leadership position was Massachusetts Democrat John McCormack.

McCormack had served 33 years, 2 months, and 4 days (12,118 days) when he became speaker in January 1962 nearly two months after the death of Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas during the 87th Congress.

McCormack is one of eight House members who waited for more than a quarter-century in the nation’s lower legislative chamber before becoming speaker – all doing so in the 20th Century from the 1900s to the 1980s.

After McCormack, the congressman with the second longest tenure before becoming speaker is Texas Democrat Jim Wright (January 1987) at 32 years and 3 days.

Other members logging in more than 25 years before winning the post are:

  • Texas Democrat John Garner (December 1931): 28 years, 9 months, 3 days
  • Illinois Republican Joseph Cannon (November 1903): 28 years, 8 months, 5 days
  • Illinois Democrat Henry Rainey (March 1933): 28 years, 5 days
  • Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn (September 1940): 27 years, 6 months, 12 days
  • Massachusetts Republican Frederick Gillett (May 1919): 26 years, 2 months, 15 days
  • Tennessee Democrat Joseph Byrns (January 1935): 25 years, 9 months, 30 days

From the 18th and into the late 19th Century, the position wielded notably less power than it does today, and speakers were significantly less seasoned upon their first day on the job in this leadership post.

Including the House’s first speaker – Pennsylvania Federalist Frederick Muhlenberg, who won the speakership 28 days into the 1st Congress – a total of nine U.S. Representatives had less than five years of service under their belt when they became speaker:

  • Kentucky Jeffersonian Republican Henry Clay (November 1811): 8 months (though Clay had also previously recorded two brief stints in the U.S. Senate)
  • New Jersey Republican William Pennington (February 1860): 10 months, 28 days
  • Connecticut Federalist Jonathan Trumbull (October 1791): 2 years, 7 months, 20 days
  • Virginia Whig Robert Hunter (December 1839): 2 years, 9 months, 12 days
  • Massachusetts Know-Nothing/Americanist Nathaniel Banks (February 1856): 2 years, 10 months, 29 days
  • South Carolina Jeffersonian Republican Langdon Cheves (January 1814): 3 years, 19 days
  • Ohio Republican Joseph Keifer (December 1881): 4 years, 9 months, 1 day
  • New Jersey Federalist Jonathan Dayton (December 1795): 4 years, 9 months, 3 days

Length of U.S. House Service Prior to Becoming Speaker

Rank
Speaker
State
Party
1st Day as Speaker
Years
Months
Days
# Days
1
John McCormack
MA
Democrat
Jan 10, 1962
33
2
4
12,118
2
Jim Wright
TX
Democrat
Jan 6, 1987
32
0
3
11,691
3
John Garner
TX
Democrat
Dec 7, 1931
28
9
3
10,505
4
Joseph Cannon
IL
Republican
Nov 9, 1903
28
8
5
10,475
5
Henry Rainey
IL
Democrat
Mar 9, 1933
28
0
5
10,233
6
Sam Rayburn
TX
Democrat
Sep 16, 1940
27
6
12
10,058
7
Frederick Gillett
MA
Republican
May 19, 1919
26
2
15
9,571
8
Joseph Byrns
TN
Democrat
Jan 3, 1935
25
9
30
9,436
9
Tom Foley
WA
Democrat
Jun 6, 1989
24
5
3
8,920
10
Carl Albert
OK
Democrat
Jan 21, 1971
24
0
18
8,784
11
Tip O’Neill
MA
Democrat
Jan 4, 1977
24
0
1
8,767
12
Joseph Martin
MA
Republican
Jan 3, 1947
21
9
30
7,975
13
Nicholas Longworth
OH
Republican
Dec 7, 1925
20
9
3
7,584
14
John Boehner
OH
Republican
Jan 5, 2011
20
0
2
7,307
15
Nancy Pelosi
CA
Democrat
Jan 4, 2007
19
7
2
7,156
16
William Bankhead
AL
Democrat
Jun 4, 1936
19
3
0
7,032
17
David Henderson
IA
Republican
Dec 4, 1899
16
9
0
6,119
18
Champ Clark
MO
Democrat
Apr 4, 1911
16
1
0
5,873
19
Newt Gingrich
GA
Republican
Jan 4, 1995
16
0
1
5,845
20
Linn Boyd
KY
Democrat
Dec 1, 1851
14
8
27
5,386
21
Samuel Randall
PA
Democrat
Dec 4, 1876
13
9
0
5,024
22
Thomas Reed
ME
Republican
Dec 2, 1889
12
8
28
4,656
23
Joseph Varnum
MA
Dem-Rep
Oct 27, 1807
12
7
22
4,618
24
Denny Hastert
IL
Republican
Jan 6, 1999
12
0
3
4,386
25
Nathaniel Macon
NC
Dem-Rep
Dec 7, 1801
10
9
3
3,930
26
James Polk
TN
Jacksonian
Dec 7, 1835
10
9
3
3,930
27
Galusha Grow
PA
Republican
Jul 4, 1861
10
4
0
3,775
Kevin McCarthy
CA
Republican
Oct 30, 2015*
8
9
27
3,222
28
Charles Crisp
GA
Democrat
Dec 8, 1891
8
9
4
3,201
29
James Orr
SC
Democrat
Dec 7, 1857
8
9
3
3,200
29
Schuyler Colfax
IN
Republican
Dec 7, 1863
8
9
3
3,200
31
Michael Kerr
IN
Democrat
Dec 6, 1875
8
9
2
3,199
32
John Jones
VA
Democrat
Dec 4, 1843
8
9
0
3,197
33
Theodore Sedgwick
MA
Federalist
Dec 2, 1799
8
0
6
2,930
34
Theodore Pomeroy
NY
Republican
Mar 3, 1869
7
11
27
2,921
35
John W. Taylor
NY
Dem-Rep
Nov 15, 1820
7
8
11
2,813
36
John Bell
TN
Jacksonian
Jun 2, 1834
7
2
29
2,647
37
Philip Barbour
VA
Dem-Rep
Dec 4, 1821
7
2
15
2,633
38
Robert Winthrop
MA
Whig
Dec 6, 1847
7
0
27
2,583
39
Howell Cobb
GA
Democrat
Dec 22, 1849
6
9
18
2,485
40
Andrew Stevenson
VA
Jacksonian
Dec 3, 1827
6
8
29
2,465
40
John Davis
IN
Democrat
Dec 1, 1845
6
8
27
2,465
40
John Carlisle
KY
Democrat
Dec 3, 1883
6
8
29
2,465
43
John White
KY
Whig
May 31, 1841
6
2
27
2,280
44
James Blaine
ME
Republican
Mar 4, 1869
6
0
0
2,192
45
Jonathan Dayton
NJ
Federalist
Dec 7, 1795
4
9
3
1,739
46
Joseph Keifer
OH
Republican
Dec 5, 1881
4
9
1
1,737
47
Langdon Cheves
SC
Dem-Rep
Jan 19, 1814
3
0
19
1,115
48
Nathaniel Banks
MA
American
Feb 2, 1856
2
10
29
1,065
49
Robert Hunter
VA
Whig
Dec 16, 1839
2
9
12
1,017
50
Jonathan Trumbull
CT
Federalist
Oct 24, 1791
2
7
20
964
51
William Pennington
NJ
Republican
Feb 1, 1860
0
10
28
334
52
Henry Clay
KY
Dem-Rep
Nov 4, 1811
0
8
0
245
53
Frederick Muhlenberg
PA
Federalist
Apr 1, 1789
0
0
28
28

* Projected start date if Rep. McCarthy runs and is elected. Table compiled by Smart Politics.

Some future speakers had particularly rocky pathways to securing this leadership position.

To date, seven of the 53 speakers saw their service in the chamber interrupted by a failed reelection bid prior to becoming speaker.

While it may seem inconceivable today that a U.S. Representative could lose his or her seat, win it back, and then eventually ascend to the speakership, such a pathway was not infrequently traveled with four of the six speakers from 1903 to 1933 all having a failed congressional reelection bid on their political resume.

The seven members of the U.S. House who suffered a reelection loss before becoming speaker are:

  • Democrat John Davis of Indiana (1840 loss): elected speaker in 1845
  • Democrat Linn Boyd of Kentucky (1836): speaker in 1851
  • Democrat Michael Kerr of Indiana (1872): speaker in 1875
  • Republican Joseph Cannon of Illinois (1890): speaker in 1903
  • Democrat Champ Clark of Missouri (1894): speaker in 1911
  • Republican Nicolas Longworth of Ohio (1912): speaker in 1925
  • Democrat Henry Rainey of Illinois (1920): speaker in 1933

While Representative McCarthy is the odds-on favorite to follow Boehner next month as the 54th House Speaker, he will face at least a few GOP opponents, with at least one running from the right.

McCarthy would be the third U.S. Representative from a Western state to win the speakership, joining Washington’s Tom Foley in 1989 and California’s Nancy Pelosi in 2007.

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1 Comment on "Kevin McCarthy and a History of Prior US House Service of Newly Elected Speakers"

  1. One possible strike/knock against McCarthy’s (now official) bid would be that his party’s strength in his home state (though not so much his own 1/53 of it!) now stands at an abysmal nadir. Even J Dennis Hastert’s home state had a R governor for half of his (party-record) eight-year tenure. Also, as a number of pundits have pointed out, the position has been far more perilous than powerful ever since the late “Tip” O’Neill (purely) voluntarily relinquished both the post and his own seat – while retaining the majority for his/her party. Uneasy lies the crown indeed.

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