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The House Tried to Oust a Speaker Once Before McCarthy. Here’s What Happened

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Kevin McCarthy, Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was kicked out of the job Tuesday in a historic vote after less than a year in the role. The vote reflected a rebellion of the far-right members of the California congressman’s party—led by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz—who objected to the way McCarthy worked with Democrats to make a deal that would avoid a government shutdown.

The vote is “the only time in House history in which a sitting Speaker was removed from office by a floor vote,” Jeffrey A. Jenkins, co-author of Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government, says in an email.

The only other time when there was a vote on a motion to oust the House Speaker was in 1910, when a similar rebellion by members of the Republican Party ganged up on Speaker Joe Cannon. However, the vote to oust Cannon did not succeed, so he was not removed from the position.

Nicknamed “Uncle Joe,” Cannon faced criticism that he was too resistant to attempts to reform the way the government worked. In the pages of TIME magazine, the Cannon era was likened to a dictatorship. As TIME described the circumstances behind the attempt to remove him from the Speakership, while reviewing a biography of Cannon, in the Mar. 19, 1951, issue of the magazine:

Beginning in 1906, when he was already a man of 70, Joe Cannon set himself to use every power of the Speaker's office to stifle the reforms demanded by younger men. From liberals of that time he earned a new and bitter nickname: "Cannon the Strangler."

…Why Tamper? Uncle Joe did not see himself as grit. He thought others, e.g., fellow Republicans T.R., "Old Bob" La Follette and George Norris, were deadly wrong when they roared against the trusts and the tariffs. America is a hell of a success, Uncle Joe insisted, and why tamper with it? With the single-minded devotion of the pure in heart, he stacked the membership of the House's 60-odd committees, awarded key chairmanships to his cohorts to make sure that nobody did tamper.

For the rest, he ruled by bottleneck. Reform bills were killed or emasculated in committee. So many died in the Judiciary Committee that it came to be known as "the Morgue." Immigration control, income tax, tariff revision and currency reform were strangled or mangled beyond recognition. "Not one cent for scenery," snorted Cannon when his own party proposed forest conservation.

Another effort to boot the House Speaker while a government shutdown loomed happened in 2015, when Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina tried to unseat Republican Speaker John Boehner. “Discontent with the Speaker over his inability to force the defunding of Planned Parenthood, stop the President’s Iran deal and do anything about Obamacare is reaching an all time high,” as TIME described the disposition of a group of conservatives in Boehner’s party back then. The motion to remove the Ohio congressman from the speakership was not introduced on the floor, however, unlike Cannon's and McCarthy's, but Boehner did resign from Congress two months later.

So far it’s unclear which Republican will succeed McCarthy, but the chamber has been leaderless before, though not in modern history. According to that same 2015 TIME story, the House had periods of weeks or months when a congressman failed to get a majority of votes for Speaker in 1839, 1855, 1859-60 and 1917.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com