Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, looks almost certain to bump up a spot, filling the void left by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who resigned the No.2 leadership position effective July 31. You might think, therefore, that McCarthy will eventually become speaker of the House. After all, the current speaker, Republican John Boehner, gained the gavel after ascending from majority leader.
Not so fast. The majority of majority leaders have not become speakers. Since the majority leader position was created in 1899, only 11 of 24 majority leaders have made the jump.
In the past 25 years, Boehner was the only majority leader to become speaker, and that was only after a stint as minority leader.
First, most of the majority leaders who became speaker were Democrats in the middle of the 20th century. During that time, Democrats had almost uninterrupted control of the House. Majority leaders usually grab the speakership only when the speaker steps down. Not surprisingly, many speakers like being speaker, and they don’t step down until their party relinquishes control of the House. Sam Rayburn, for example, was speaker for 17 years and only ceased being speaker because he died. Such long tenures have left little room for ambitious majority leaders.
Second, even when a speaker steps down, a majority leader may fall victim to the same tides that removed the speaker. Newt Gingrich, for example, was forced to resign after a poor GOP showing in the 1998 midterms. After Gingrich’s fall, Majority Leader Dick Armey didn’t take the gavel; he had enough difficulty just holding onto the majority leader position. Many in the Republican caucus blamed Armey for the election result.
Third, politics is cyclical. The former majority leader may become head of his party in the House if the speaker departs after a loss. Sometimes though, that position may be minority leader instead of speaker. Boehner rose from majority leader to minority leader to speaker. Boehner, however, is the only leader to follow that track. And it can take a long time for a party to regain control of the House. Dick Gephardt went from majority leader to minority leader for the Democrats from 1995 to 2003, but he couldn’t hold on long enough to see his party regain the majority.
Cantor’s lack of ascendance to the speakership may have occurred in an unusual fashion, but the fact that Cantor is likely to end his political career without becoming speaker is not unusual. The majority leader is a powerful position, but it’s far from a guarantee of rising even higher.