Over the past 30-ish hours, Congress has put on quite the show: Republican California Rep. Kevin McCarthy is repeatedly failing at securing enough votes to become the next speaker of the House. It’s a situation that hasn’t happened in a century, but McCarthy’s speakership contest is far from the most divisive fight to occur in the hallways of Capitol Hill. Most speaker elections are considered almost formalities, but there have been 14 instances requiring multiple ballots, like what’s happening now. Arguably the most contentious speaker vote took place in 1856, for Republican Rep. Nathaniel Banks. Securing the speakership took Banks 133 ballots over the course of two months.
McCarthy is only on ballot number six (as of Wednesday). With Republicans holding very narrow control of the House, he’s mostly been fighting with the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, including those in the House Freedom Caucus, some newly elected members, and a few constant problems (think Rep. Lauren Boebert). These pesky lawmakers are refusing to vote for McCarthy over a slew of issues that mostly boil down to the idea that he is too “Republican establishment” and too likely to agree with Democrats’ government spending packages, but they’re also ostensibly trying to change some House rules.
Back in 1856, Banks also faced a fractured party—but the divide centered on a very different set of issues. Banks was anti-slavery and part of the “Know Nothing” Party, a faction of the Republican Party. A separate majority of his Republican colleagues were still interested in expanding slavery in the 1850s. According to House archives, the situation of the unresolved speakership prompted a bill that required candidates for speaker to publicly state their opinions of Congress’ recent actions, which at the time was about slavery and how it had spread to the western territories. It was correctly considered a delay tactic, and it didn’t even work. Even after holding a three-hour Q&A session with candidates, including Banks, about their views on recent laws and provisions relating to slavery, none of them secured a majority in the following speaker votes.
The 19th-century version of America’s Congress operated a lot differently than what we have today. The two-party system did not exist as we now know it, and particularly in this period, lawmakers were essentially sectioned off between Northerners and Southerners. That created multiple political factions within the Democratic and Republican parties, like the Northern Whigs, Southern Whigs, and the Know Nothings, with slavery even creating internal divides within those very factions. In fact, Banks set the record for running for Congress on multiple political party platforms—he ran as a member of the American Party, as a Democrat, a Republican, a Liberal Republican, and an Independent (he won a House seat on the Liberal Republican ticket).
During his bid for speaker, thanks to the many parties and factions that existed, Banks faced off against more than 21 lawmakers—a much different situation than what McCarthy faces today. (Right now, the Democrats are aligned behind Hakeem Jeffries, while the 20 or so disobedient Republicans have been jockeying their support between Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who’s publicly supported McCarthy’s bid and also said he doesn’t want to be speaker, Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, and Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs.) The numerous factions meant there were more serious candidates when Banks was running, which led to longer votes and delayed proceedings. The situation got so bad that it inspired a one-time change to official congressional rules: The House lowered the threshold for a speakership victory to a plurality of votes, meaning whoever got the most votes would win even if they didn’t receive a majority. Unfortunately for McCarthy, that rule has since been reverted back and he needs a majority of the House to land speaker, which is 218 votes.
In the end, 103 of 234 members voted for Banks—and only 100 voted for his pro-slavery challenger—allowing him to assume the speakership.
The whole debacle is an outlier in American politics: After that year, only two more speaker elections required multiple ballot rounds, in 1860 for Rep. William Pennington and in 1923 for Rep. Frederick Huntington Gillett. We can now add McCarthy to this list. At least he should remember that it could continue to get worse!