With the highly controversial vote earlier this week ousting California Representative Kevin McCarthy as House speaker, next week in Washington is setting up to be another historic occasion as Republicans prepare to vote on his successor.
It was the popular management consultant and author Peter Drucker who once rightly observed, “The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.”
The Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde offered a similar sentiment when he observed, “The only certain thing in life is uncertainty itself.”
Since the first Congress convened in 1789, there have been 55 speakers hailing from 23 states. Samuel Rayburn of Texas has the distinction of serving the longest (17 years) and Theodore M. Pomeroy of New York held the position for the shortest tenure – just one day.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives wields significant power, overseeing the activities and direction of Congress’ lower chamber, but also heavily influencing how its members vote by offering guidance and direction, as well as incentives to vote certain ways.
Although he has indicated he won’t run for Speaker again, Kevin McCarthy’s fate in Congress remains an open question, as some reports indicate he may choose to resign his seat prior to the end of term next year. Not surprisingly, the resume of any candidate up for Speaker is heavily scrutinized. Looking back across the years, it’s fairly certain the first Speaker, Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, wouldn’t pass muster today.
Speaker Muhlenberg was an ordained Lutheran minister, serving first in Pennsylvania and later in New York during the outbreak of the American Revolution. In fact, Lutheran Christ Church, Pastor Muhlenberg’s parish, was burned by the British during the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776. The pastor and his family were forced to flee for their safety.
While living in Pennsylvania, Frederick Muhlenberg was nominated for the Continental Congress in 1779, and served on the Pennsylvania General Assembly for several terms. He also served as Speaker for the Assembly. Pastor Muhlenberg later became a strong advocate for the United States Constitution, and was eventually elected to the first House in 1789, and then elevated to Speaker.
It would be an understatement to characterize Speaker Muhlenberg’s tenure as Speaker of the first Congress to be consequential. Although he complained about the growth of the new government (some things never change), and the low pay of $6 a day – members were required to cover all of their own expenses – an historian of the House of Representatives summed up the activities as such:
[The House] not only to organize itself and to establish the basic institutions of the new government, but also to lay the foundations of the American economy.
More than 60 major statutes were the legislative fruit of its efforts. It created the War, Treasury, and Foreign Affairs (State) Departments. It established the judicial courts of the United States, a Land Office, and a government for the Northwest Territory. It passed a tariff bill, an invalid pensions measure, and a bill for the regulation of the coastal trade. It established the permanent seat of the national government and fixed the compensation of executive and judicial officers and employees. It enacted the first annual appropriations acts, passed several relief bills, and legislated the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
It considered scores of memorials and petitions as well as laws regulating patents and copyrights, bankruptcies, harbors, the punishment of crimes, naturalization, the importation of slaves, and intercourse with the Indian tribes. It also considered bills for the establishment of lighthouses and hospitals, the encouragement of commerce and navigation, the establishment of a uniform militia, conveyance of the mails, claims against the United States, the remission of fines, the encouragement of learning, progress of the useful arts, succession to the Presidency, reduction of the public debt, rates of foreign exchange, and the admission of Kentucky and Vermont into the Union.
Serving two non-consecutive terms as Speaker, Muhlenberg left Congress in 1797 and died soon after in 1801. He was just 51. If you were to visit his tomb at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, Penn., you’d see a plaque commemorating his life. He lists being a pastor first – and being Speaker of the House last.
May the Lord give discernment and wisdom as the process for the next Speaker of the House commences on Wednesday.
Image from Shutterstock/University of Pennsylvania.