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The speaker of the House has a lot of responsibilities: Shepherding legislation. Raising money. Assigning office space?
That’s right: the speaker has final say over room assignments on the House side of the Capitol, a power that — like almost everything else in Congress — occasionally gets weaponized for partisan purposes. Just this week, in one of his first acts after (temporarily) claiming the gavel, Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry evicted two top Democrats — former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer — from their sought-after “hideaway” offices.
Pelosi’s office is now being given to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, which Republicans say is in accordance with precedence, claiming that the hideaway is always assigned to the most recent ex-speaker. But, according to CNN, McCarthy had a hand in the move, and it was done as retaliation for Democrats voting to oust him from the speakership.
This isn’t the type of news I usually lead off with on Friday mornings, when I typically highlight bipartisanship and government function — both of which were in fairly short supply this week. (Eight Republicans teaming up with 208 Democrats to oust the House speaker may be bipartisan, but it isn’t very functional.)
But the office drama did remind me of a different story of congressional bipartisanship, one that I think is especially worth sharing this week. The bad news? We have to dial back almost 70 years to find it.
“Sam and Joe”
The characters in our story are Sam Rayburn, a Democratic congressman from Texas, and Joe Martin, a Republican from Massachusetts. Neither is especially well remembered today, but in their time, they were hugely influential lawmakers. Think Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy, but 20 times more powerful.
They each served in Congress for more than 40 years, and led their respective party caucuses for nearly identical tenures: Martin was the top House Republican from 1939 to 1959, Rayburn was the top House Democrat from 1940 to 1961. As Time magazine put it in the 1960s, the two men “were synonymous with the House for two generations of Americans.”
Known as “Sam and Joe” to their colleagues, the pair ran Congress like a buddy comedy. They fought like hell at times — but they were also close friends, and made a point never to surprise each other. According to Martin’s biographer James Kenneally, they held regular joint strategy meetings — hard to imagine today — “to keep abreast of the schedule, to search for common ground and avoid needless floor debate, to allot time for necessary debate, and to help with patronage problems in minor staff positions.”
Together, they got a lot done, including the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1957, which they both supported. They were never shy to praise each other in public: “Thank God we have Sam Rayburn as speaker,” Martin said at one point. At another, Rayburn was asked to campaign against Martin in Massachusetts. “Speak against Joe?” he answered. “Hell, if I lived up there, I’d vote for him.”
A 1955 joint profile in Life magazine compared them to an “old married couple,” reporting that they were known on the Hill as “men of their word,” bound together by their love for the institution.
What does this have to do with office space? Well, control of Congress was somewhat volatile in their day, just like it is in ours. During their two decades in charge, Rayburn and Martin traded the speakership back and forth no less than four times. The speaker and the minority leader both have some of the nicest digs in Congress — but, as you can imagine, the speaker’s office is a fair bit nicer.
Eventually, though, they just stopped switching offices. As Rayburn’s biographer Alfred Steinberg tells it, a few days after winning back the majority in 1954, Rayburn walked out of his office and saw Martin standing in the ornate speaker’s suite — which he’d soon have to give up — looking sad.
“Joe,” Rayburn said, wanting to cheer up his friend, “Ah’m tired of all this shiftin’ around. What do you say we each keep the same room we got now?”
This week, the Capitol office space was nothing more than a political chit, used to heighten tensions and settle partisan scores. But for Rayburn and Martin, it was used as a gesture of friendship, and even of self-sacrifice.
Such acts of magnanimity were not soon forgotten, giving them a basic level of trust they were able to build off of in order to productively legislate. “You treated us with respect and dignity,” Martin told Rayburn after seizing back the majority at one point, “and we shall do the same.”
Our story, though, doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. Eventually, Republicans grew tired of Martin working with Rayburn and the Democrats. (Sound familiar?) In 1959, they ousted their leader of 20 years, replacing him with the more conservative Charles Halleck.
At the time, the Harvard Crimson called it a “guillotine-swift blow,” reporting that Martin was “dumped with a gracelessness not soon to be forgotten by his many close friends in the House.”
According to Keannelly, the ousted Martin — now a backbencher — went to Speaker Rayburn; again, their conversation turned to office space. “Do you have a cubbyhole for me anyplace?” Martin asked the speaker, tears running down his face. Rayburn replied that Martin could have any office space he wanted.
For several decades, even as Congress evolved, one legacy of theirs remained: instead of office-swapping, the top House Republican — in the majority or not — kept the slightly nicer digs that had belonged to Martin, while the Democratic leader remained in Rayburn’s office.
That lasted until 2006, when Democrats won back the majority and Nancy Pelosi decided she wanted the GOP suite, what had traditionally been the speaker’s office. And so she took it, executing the exact kind of real estate power play that this week she was a victim to.
What does this story have to tell us today? First off, it’s a reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun. Intraparty coups have been going on for centuries; even in times we remember as bipartisan, parties would often exact punishments for their leaders acting too conciliatory.
But it’s also a glimpse into how two House leaders ran a functional chamber — how well things can work in Washington when small things like office assignments are treated like opportunities to solidify relationships, not to win revenge.
“A speaker has to be fair,” Rayburn told Life in 1955. “Otherwise they’ll tear him to pieces.”
“You’ve got to try to build up goodwill,” Martin agreed. “You can’t operate unless the members like you.”
Perhaps some helpful advice for whichever (un)lucky soul wields the gavel next.
What Washington got done this week.
OK, back to the present day, and to your usual programming. Here’s what got done in Washington this week:
In the House... Before the speaker drama, the lower chamber voted 394-1 to pass the bipartisan Modernizing the Acquisition of Cybersecurity Experts (MACE) Act. The bill would prohibit government agencies from establishing minimum educational requirements for most federal cybersecurity jobs.
The measure joins a growing list of states working to tear the “paper ceiling,” eliminating degree requirements for government jobs that don’t need them, in order to unlock economic opportunities for workers without college educations. These states are trying to reverse a trend confirmed by research published just this week, which found that educational status has overtaken other metrics in predicting life expectancy.
The bill is also aimed at combatting the nation’s shortage of cybersecurity professionals, with over 700,000 jobs currently unfilled in the industry. “Today, a brilliant computer whiz who drops out of Harvard after a year or two – as Bill Gates did – would stand little chance of securing a federal cybersecurity job,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement.
A quick coda: This bill — sponsored (and even named after!) Mace — was the final piece of legislation to receive a House vote under Speaker McCarthy. Mace clearly opted not to return the favor: she was one of the eight Republicans who voted to oust him one day later.
In the Senate... It was just a two-day workweek in the upper chamber, so not much was accomplished. The Senate mainly focused on nominations, confirming an Assistant Secretary of State and two district court judges (all of whom received at least some bipartisan support).
Other than that, the chamber approved a slew of resolutions unanimously, including measures calling for the release of Paul Whelan, an American citizen imprisoned in Russia, and mourning the deaths of Jimmy Buffett and Dianne Feinstein.
In the administration... President Biden waived 26 environmental laws to speed border wall construction in southern Texas, a reversal of his 2020 promise not to build “another foot of wall” along the border. The White House insisted that Biden’s hands were tied due to a 2019 appropriation, a statement undercut by the president’s decision to also bypass environmental reviews to fast-track the construction.
The move comes as some Democrats have called on Biden to tighten his immigration policies in response to the recent surge of migrants. More than 200,000 migrants were apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally last month, a new record. “There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers” along the border, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in his notice of the new construction, before reversing himself after backlash from progressives.
The Biden administration also announced this week that it will reinstate another Trump policy at the border: deporting Venezuelan migrants directly back to Venezuela if they cross the border illegally and lack a basis to remain in the U.S. Of the 200,000 migrants apprehended last month, around 50,000 were from Venezuela.
Also: President Biden announced $9 billion in new student loan forgiveness. Since the Supreme Court struck down his student loan debt cancellation plan, Biden has been attempting to ease loan debt piecemeal by expanding existing programs instead of creating a new one.
This week’s debt relief — which impacted 125,000 Americans — came through expansions of programs assisting public service workers and people with disabilities. According to the White House, the Biden administration has now canceled more than $127 billion in student loan debt for nearly 3.6 million in Americans.
More news to know.
I’ll have a lot more on the House speaker fight in Tuesday, including answers to a bunch of interesting reader questions. Send in your questions to email@example.com.
The day ahead.
White House: President Biden will deliver remarks on the September jobs report at 11:30 a.m. ET. The report showed the U.S. economy adding 336,000 jobs last month, significantly more than economists expected. Later in the day, Biden will meet with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to celebrate German-American Day.
Congress: Neither the House nor Senate are in session.
Supreme Court: The justices will meet for their weekly conference.
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