Historically, the job of Speaker of the House of Representatives is the culmination of a life lived in politics. Years of legislative experience, relationship building, and an intimate familiarity with how Washington works have long been effective prerequisites for the job.
The current speaker, Ohio Republican John Boehner, who will retire at the end of the year, came to the speakership after 20 years in the legislative trenches. His predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, likewise served two full decades before taking up the speaker’s gavel.
In fact, going back a generation, to legendary Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill, the average Speaker has come to the job with more than 21 years in the House. Even Denny Hastert, the least experienced Speaker to hold the post when he took over in a crisis from a scandal-scarred Newt Gingrich, had been in Congress for a dozen years at the time.
On Saturday morning, with his official entrance into the race to replace Boehner, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) brought the average tenure of the three Republicans seeking the spot to something under seven-and-a-half years.
The establishment candidate, current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, has only been in the House since 2007, making him the longest-serving of the candidates. Chaffetz and long-shot candidate Daniel Webster of Florida each joined the body two years after McCarthy.
But one can look beyond the race to lead the House of Representatives and see a similar dynamic playing out in the GOP as a whole. The most recent NBC/Marist polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination shows that in the key early voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa, the combined years of government service put in by the top three candidates is zero.
Real estate billionaire and former reality television star Donald Trump leads in both states. In New Hampshire, he is trailed by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. In Iowa, the candidate in second place is retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Speaking to Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, Chaffetz tried to articulate the thinking that animates the party to ignore more seasoned leaders in favor of what he calls a “fresh start.”
“You don’t just give an automatic promotion to the existing leadership team,” Chaffetz said.
Addressing McCarthy’s speakership bid, he said, “He’s been in existing leadership for years and years, and the strife and the divide is getting worse, it’s not getting better.”
Reasonable people can disagree over whether McCarthy, who has been in leadership in one form or another since 2008 has “years and years” of experience. McCarthy is already the least experienced member of the House to ever serve as Majority Leader. And if he were to become Speaker, he would take up the gavel with less experience in the House than any speaker since Charles Frederick Crisp in 1891. (Chaffetz and Webster would have even less experience than Crisp had.)
In a sense, that appears to be the selling point for Chaffetz. He’s positioning himself as someone not tethered to the old way of doing business.
“What I’m trying to offer is we need internal process reform in how we select the committees, who the committee chairmen are bringing votes to the floor,” he said. “I don’t expect…that every vote we bring to the floor that we win. I want to vote more, not less. I don’t want these things to be pre-baked. I want the committees to be more empowered.”
“Kevin McCarthy is a good man and he’s a reason why we have such a solid majority,” he said. “But things have changed, and there’s really a math problem. You need 218 votes on the floor of the House. There are 246 Republicans that will vote, but there are nearly 50 people and a growing number who will not and cannot vote for Kevin McCarthy as the speaker on the floor. He’s going to fall short of the 218 votes on the floor of the House.”
Voters, Chaffetz said, “Didn’t send us here to perpetuate the status quo.”
It’s a sign perhaps, of just how frustrated Republican voters are. The least experienced majority leader in history, seeking to become the least experienced speaker of the House in nearly 125 years, is now under attack for being too much a symbol of status quo.
It’s almost enough to make one think that a former reality television star with zero political experience could win the GOP presidential nomination.