House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wants to go back to Congress as a regular member, like the hundreds of other members who aren’t in charge.
“My friends, no matter what title you all, my colleagues, have bestowed upon me — speaker, leader, whip — there is no greater official honor for me than to stand on this floor and to speak for the people of San Francisco,” she told Congress in November. “This I will continue to do as a member of the House.”
What that role looks like in real life is still up in the air. When asked about her plans for the next Congress, her office pointed to her last press conference as speaker, where she said she wants to have a “strong influence” on getting more women to run for office and that she thinks it will take a while to finish things related to her role as speaker, like giving papers to the Library of Congress and doing interviews with the historian of the Congress. But her decades-long impact can’t be ignored as she makes way for a new generation of leaders. And in the past, there hasn’t been a plan for a speaker to stay in Congress after they stop being in charge.
But there aren’t many examples of people in her position just fading away. “I would probably think of her as a leader without a name,” Smock said.
Matthew Green, a professor and head of the politics department at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., said it was “pretty unusual” for Pelosi to stay in Congress after giving up the speakership.
“The last speaker to do that was Dennis Hastert, but he didn’t actually serve very long after his speakership was over. So, he didn’t really stick around. Technically, Newt Gingrich did, but it was extremely brief,” Green said.
Hastert was re-elected in 2006, but Republicans lost the majority. He didn’t run for a leadership position in the new minority because he didn’t want to be in charge. In November 2007, after less than a year in the new Congress, he told the House of Representatives that he was leaving. Gingrich, on the other hand, said he was leaving Congress at the end of his term as speaker, just a few days after he was reelected in 1998.
Most speakers, like Paul Ryan, who was a speaker during the 114th and 115th congresses, don’t run for reelection. Or, as John Boehner did in October 2015, they quit Congress while they are still in office. Other speakers, like Samuel Rayburn, have died while in office, but Green says this happened more often in the middle of the 20th century.
Joseph Cannon of Illinois was the most famous speaker to return as a regular member in 1911. But the way his time as a leader came to an end was very different. Members of his own party forced him to give up some of his power as a speaker. In March 1910, the House of Representatives met for 29 hours to talk about how to limit the ability of Cannon. He was a regular member of Congress the next year, but Cannon lost his seat in 1912. He was re-elected as a regular member in 1914, and he stayed in office until the 1920s.
“That’s probably the worst case of someone who had almost complete control over the House and was then removed from power by his own party.” Then he went back to Illinois, ran for office in his old district, and won. After that, he kept serving as a regular member,” Smock said.
Green said it was “very unusual” for Pelosi to decide not to run for speaker again but to run for reelection and stay in office.
In terms of her legacy, Smock said that, unlike Cannon, there is no doubt that Nancy Pelosi will be remembered as one of the most important leaders the House of Representatives has ever had.
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