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Donnie Fowler Headshot

No, Speakers Who Lose Do Not Always Resign

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Conventional wisdom is great, huh? It's right about half the time. Problem is, you never know which half.

One piece of conventional wisdom making the rounds right now is that "House Speakers who lose the majority must inevitably resign." The spreaders of this nugget of wisdom thus argue that Nancy Pelosi will naturally leave Congress now that the Democrats have lost their four-year-old majority.

Well, somebody hasn't done their homework.

Let's look at it two ways. First, only two Speakers since World War II have left the job and the Congress because their party lost the majority. Those happened to be the last two -- Newt Gingrich after the 1998 Republican disaster and Dennis Hastert after the GOP was ousted in 2006. The others left because they retired (John McCormack in 1971, Carl Albert in 1977, and Tip O'Neill in 1987), got pushed out under an ethics cloud (Jim Wright in 1989), or lost their own re-election in their own district (Tom Foley in 1994).

Second, there is actually precedent for losing the majority and sticking around to win it back. Two Speakers in the last 64 years have won the job, lost the job, and won it back again. Who? Well one, Sam Rayburn from Texas, is considered to be among the very best Speakers in American history and happened also to serve longer in the job than anyone else.

All this happened right after World War II. In the Republican wave election of 1946 Rayburn gave up the job to Joe Martin, Republican of Massachusetts. Then two years later, when a Democratic wave swept the House, the men got their old jobs back. The 1952 election that brought in President Eisenhower, a Republican, again put Martin in charge. Rayburn got the last word in 1954, though, by achieving a victory that began a 40-year, uninterrupted run for the Democrats.

A Democratic leader as effective as effective as Nancy Pelosi is extraordinarly valuable. She not only passed President Obama's entire agenda, but passed it in 2009 only to see everything grind to a halt in the U.S. Senate in 2010. That includes extraordinary, but not perfect, progress on health care, clean energy, Wall Street reform, the economic stimulus package, and so much else.

Nancy Pelosi led the Democrats out of the wilderness in 2006 and surely can do it again in 2012. Just look to the venerable Sam Rayburn and Joe Martin for the way.