Constitution Daily

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Why Boehner’s resignation is truly historic for House speakers

September 30, 2015 by Scott Bomboy


As the dust settles from John Boehner’s resignation, a quick look at the House’s official records shows how rare – and historic- it is for a Speaker of the House to quit during a two-year congressional session.


Obama_BoehnerSince 1789, there have been 114 two-year congressional terms. The last House speaker to resign during a session was Jim Wright in June 1989. The Democrat from Texas was dogged by an ethics investigation spearheaded by a lesser-known Representative from Georgia, New Gingrich.


Link: Official List Of Past House Speakers


Wright was the first House Speaker to resign while under an ethics investigation, and only the fourth person to quit as Speaker within a term, at the time. Boehner became the fifth Speaker to resign, in a 226-year period, last week.


Also, five Speakers have died while in office: Michael Kerr, Henry Rainey, Joseph Byrns, William Bankhead, and Samuel Rayburn.


Boehner is currently the 53rd Speaker of the House, so his resignation illustrates how rare it is for the majority party in the House to lose its leader voluntarily.


Henry Clay quit as Speaker three times in an 11-year period, starting in 1814. Clay’s first resignation was tendered so he could accept a place on the commission that ended the War of 1812. When he returned from peace talks in Europe, Clay discovered he couldn’t assume his House seat, since he signed a peace treaty as a negotiator, in violation of Article I, Section 6, Part 2, of the Constitution. (The provision bars officials from holding simultaneous positions in the Executive and Legislative branches.)


In 1820, Clay resigned as Speaker so he could return to his private law practice to pay off private financial losses. His final Speaker resignation was in 1825 to become John Quincy Adams’s Secretary of State.


Andrew Stevenson resigned in June 1834 to accept President Andrew Jackson’s nomination as the United States minister to the United Kingdom. The Senate denied the first attempt to approve Stevenson, but his nomination was later successful.


Schuyler Colfax resigned after he was the successful vice presidential nominee for Ulysses Grant in the 1868 presidential election. He was also the first current Speaker to win an election as vice president. (James Polk was the only former Speaker to win a presidential election.)


Wright in 1989 became the fourth Speaker to resign from office. Gingrich eventually became Speaker of the House, but he, too, faced ethics claims and a backlash from fellow Republicans after disappointing mid-term election results in 1998. Gingrich announced after his re-election in November 1998 that would not take a seat in the next Congress, so he didn’t officially resign as Speaker.


Boehner’s resignation, in context, is different from the other resignations in key ways. The common perception is that Boehner resigned due to problems within the Republican House caucus. The resignations of Clay (in 1815 and 1825), Stevenson and Colfax were to assume other government positions. Financial and ethical reasons led to the other two resignations.


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