Speaker Carl Albert

Ronald M. Peters, Jr.

It was Carl Albert's fate to serve as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives during a tumultuous period in the history of that institution and the country that it represents. Evaluating Speakers is somewhat like evaluating presidents; the longer the perspective, the better the view. A consideration of Carl Albert's speakership today enables us to take that longer view and situate his place in history. 

If we consider Carl Albert's speakership as he experienced it, we cannot help but be struck by how challenging it appeared. What he knew and understood of the speakership had been learned in service to Sam Rayburn and John McCormack. These two speakers were pre-modern men, creatures of a House that was passing away by the time Albert took office in 1971. The defining characteristic of Rayburn's speakership was the Conservative Coalition, the combination of conservative (largely southern) Democrats and Republicans that controlled policy on many issues on the House floor. Due in large part to the peculiar role that the South had come to play in Democratic party politics since Reconstruction, the House was dominated by senior committee members, many from the South, and so the Coalition's influence extended to the committee rooms as well. As Speaker, Rayburn sought to balance his commitment to the national Democratic party and its progressive, New Deal philosophy, and the raw power of the conservatives who could often frustrate the policy ambitions of the liberal majority in the Democratic Caucus. The fact that Rayburn was himself a southerner was helpful in this respect, and the plinth upon which he stood lay in his personal relationships with the committee barons who were his peers.

The defining feature of John McCormack's speakership, by contrast, was the dominance of the liberal Democratic majority, especially after 1964. The Johnson landslide swept huge Democratic majorities into power in the House, and changed its landscape for good. While committee barons retained their positions and power, the liberal Democratic majority was able to sweep them aside on the basic elements of the Great Society program. McCormack, a northern progressive himself, simply rode the crest of this wave. By the late 1960s, the wave began to erode the sand from the beach. The new Democrats did not want to take a back seat in the old power structure. They pressed for reforms, and the ancient order began to give way, first with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 and then with a series of reforms in House and Democratic Caucus rules in the early 1970s. First as majority leader, and then as Speaker, Carl Albert had to negotiate these shoals. 

Thus, the defining feature of his speakership was adaptation to change. Both the extent of the changes that took place in the House during Mr. Albert's speakership and his reaction to them were affected by the 1968 election. When Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey by a slim 500,000 vote margin, the stage was set for eight years of conflict at the center of which Carl Albert would come to sit. Two main factors shaped this conflict. The first was the Vietnam War, which cleaved the Democratic party and the country at large. The second was Nixon's "southern strategy," which was designed to ensure that he would carry the states of the deep South that George Wallace had carried in 1968. In pursuit of this strategy Nixon chose to accentuate school busing, crime, and Supreme Court appointments, renewing the hatred of those Democrats who remembered him for his anti-communism in the late 1940s and creating a new generation of political adversaries. 

Nixon's strategy caught Carl Albert in a pincer. While later, when the war was coming to an end, he supported congressional efforts to terminate funding, earlier he had supported Nixon's war policy. In fact, Albert was a staunch cold warrior in the tradition of Harry Truman and he favored strong American action to stem the tide of global communism. The Democratic party was riven over Vietnam, and Albert consistently sided with other southern Democrats in supporting the Nixon administration's defense and foreign policy. At the same time, Albert strongly opposed Nixon's domestic agenda and took the lead in the Democratic Caucus to stem anti-school busing resolutions. Thus, Albert straddled the schism in the party, siding with the southern conservatives on some issues and with the northern liberals on others.

In this respect his position was a good deal like Rayburn's. And like Rayburn, Albert sought to cushion the shock by working with and through the committee system. Albert believed in that system. He understood that the work of the House was done in committees, and he believed that careful committee work was the bedrock of good legislation. He accepted seniority as a way of allocating committee assignments because the seniority rule dampened conflict and promoted experience. He recognized that it was untenable for a Speaker to absorb every House action into his own reputation (a lesson that Speaker Gingrich was later to learn the hard way), and the committees were useful foils for his own role. Finally, the members who headed the House committees were his long-time friends and colleagues. While some were potential rivals, Albert believed that the leadership could work with them. What had worked for Rayburn would work for him.

His situation was, however, not like Rayburn's at all, a fact that he gradually came to understand. The traditional divisions within the party existed, but were now exacerbated by Vietnam. Generational turnover had brought a phalanx of younger and more liberal members to the House, but the committee system was still largely in the hands of old bulls who had learned at the feet of even older bulls. The seeds of ideological and generational conflict were sown, and that conflict sprouted just as Albert was poised to become Speaker. His challenge was to lead an effective Democratic opposition to the Nixon administration's domestic policies while supporting the administration on foreign and defense policy. Simultaneously, he had to guide the House Democrats through the period of generational turnover that became known as the "reform" era. Through it all, he never served with a president of his own party, the first Speaker since Cactus Jack Garner of Texas to be denied that opportunity (the next Speakers so situated were Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Dennis Hastert of Illinois). 

Albert's position was ticklish if not precarious. He needed to work with the committee dons in order to develop a legislative program; he needed to support the insurgent liberals' reform efforts in order to assuage their demands. Albert in fact was receptive to reform, far more than had been either Rayburn or McCormack. They had resisted even so basic a change as regular monthly meetings of the Democratic Caucus, but Albert, as majority leader under McCormack, supported this and convinced McCormack to go along. He supported the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, which opened up the process in part by implementing a system of electronic voting. In fact, Albert supported almost all of the main reform proposals that were enacted by the Democrats during the early 1970s. And for good reason, since many of them had the effect of enhancing the power of the Speaker vis-à-vis the committee chairs. The subcommittee bill of rights, for example, which pushed power downward within the committees, made the leadership's role more pivotal, especially at the floor stage. Provisions for multiple referral of bills (to more than one committee) also enhanced the power of the leadership. Perhaps the most significant change was the transfer of power of making Democratic committee assignments from the Democratic members of the Ways and Means Committee to the party's Steering and Policy Committee, chaired by the Speaker. The one proposed change that Albert resisted was a proposal to allow the Speaker to override the Rules Committee. Instead, the Democrats enlarged the ratio of Democrats to Republicans and gave the Speaker effective control of the committee through his power of appointment. Albert did not think it in the best interest of the speakership for the office to become the effective czar over the House floor. 

Albert's most significant House reform initiative was the special committee charged to review the House committee structure. The committee, headed by Richard Bolling of Missouri, took on the most resilient feature of the old order: committee seats and jurisdictions. Everyone recognized that the committee system had become cumbersome, redundant, and inefficient. The obvious solution was to reduce their number and streamline their jurisdictions. Any changes would obviously affect the seats of the members and the jurisdictions (or even the very existence) of the current committees. Bolling was a forceful advocate of change, and at the outset he had Albert's full support. When his committee made its recommendations, however, it was apparent that they had gone too far; there was insufficient support to enact changes as sweeping as were being proposed. Albert's choices were to support Bolling in a fight to the finish or to find a path to more moderate changes that the House would accept. When confronted with a divisive proposal, be it a matter of substantive legislation or a matter of institutional change, Speakers instinctively seek that which will gather a majority of votes. This is the great lesson that Albert learned from Rayburn and McCormack: what will pass? Albert opted to refer the matter to the Democratic Caucus's standing committee on House procedures which proposed a watered down version of the Bolling committee reforms that was accepted by the House. While continuing to support the Bolling plan, Albert in effect ensured its defeat by enabling the members to vote on a less sweeping proposal. In the end, the House "worked its will."

Having decided to launch the committee reform effort, Albert had three choices. He could have sought to rein in Bolling before the select committee produced a plan too radical for the House to accept. He could have stood by Bolling until the end, and gone down with the ship, sinking any reform. Or, he could have sought a third way, winning as much reform as the House was willing to adopt. He chose the third path and it remains a part of his legacy.

If the effort to reform the House committee system did not work out as Albert had originally intended, two other major reforms were enacted that provide a continuing legacy of his speakership: the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Albert was ambivalent about the War Powers Resolution. While he had come eventually to the conclusion that the Vietnam War needed to be brought to an end, he was a cold-warrior whose conception of the presidency was defined by Roosevelt and Truman. Albert did not want to see the presidency diminished. He had more reason to think about the prerogatives of the presidency than most, standing twice in line of succession to it. Still, Albert recognized the strong support for the Resolution in the Democratic Caucus, and he did not choose to oppose it.

The Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 was another matter. Nixon's impoundment of congressionally appropriated funds on policy grounds offended Albert's sense of the constitutional balance between the Congress and the presidency. This was a matter of congressional prerogative. Albert pushed for the enactment of the Budget Act and his key policy assistant, John Barriere, was heavily involved on his behalf in shaping the legislation. Certainly no other single reform has had a greater impact on how the Congress does business than has the Budget Act. All of the major budget agreements of the 1980s and 1990s came under its auspices. Congress has often had to struggle mightily to meet its procedural deadlines and the substantive agreements it spawned. Just as Albert presided over dramatic changes in the mechanics and power structure of the House, he strongly promoted the reassertion of congressional control over the budget.

No account of Carl Albert's speakership can omit reference to his role in the impeachment of Richard Nixon and the resignation of Spiro Agnew from the vice presidency. The two went hand in hand, certainly as Albert perceived them. The most critical decision that he made was to refer the impeachment to the House Judiciary Committee instead of setting up a special committee that would have been stacked on the Democratic side with Nixon haters and on the Republican side with Nixon defenders. Albert thought it imperative that the public perceive the House as acting fairly in its consideration of Nixon's alleged offenses. He was not willing to have the Democrats "steal" the presidency from the Republicans. He insisted that the Judiciary Committee, under the leadership of Peter Rodino, proceed at its own pace and without interference from the party leadership. Even as other members of the leadership, including Tip O'Neill, sought to pressure Rodino into faster action (earning O'Neill a rare expletive from the soft-spoken Rodino), Albert stood by the chairman and the work of his committee. 

In the midst of the Judiciary Committee's inquiry, the Justice Department unearthed evidence that Agnew had taken bribes while serving as governor of Maryland. Confronted with the evidence and the charges, Agnew sought to avoid a trial. He asked Albert for an impeachment inquiry, reasoning that a House impeachment inquiry would supercede an indictment brought by Justice, that the more politicized environment of the House would offer him better prospects than a court of law, and that the country might not abide the spectacle of the congressional Democratic majority conducting impeachment proceedings against both the president and the vice president of the United States at the same time. 

In a meeting in the Speaker's office, Albert, upon the recommendation of House Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler, was inclined to grant Agnew's request as a matter of privilege. Certainly under the House rules a motion to impeach is privileged, and any member could have offered such a motion. Entering the meeting, Tip O'Neill spoke strongly against granting Agnew's request. He argued that this would embroil the House and the country and would enable Agnew to avoid criminal due process. The Democratic leadership, he argued, should not help get Agnew off the hook with the Justice Department. Albert was persuaded by O'Neill and decided to decline Agnew's request. A short time later Agnew resigned, and Albert was next in line to become president of the United States.

With the vice presidency vacant, Albert was encouraged by some of the more radical Democrats to push the impeachment process forward and seize the presidency. He refused. Instead, he recommended to President Nixon that Republican Leader Gerald Ford would be the best choice as vice president. Nixon concurred and Ford was set on the path to the presidency.

In the summer of 1974 the Judiciary Committee recommended articles of impeachment against Nixon, alleging abuse of power. The public was divided over the impeachment of the president as was the House; yet no one questioned the legitimacy or fairness of the proceedings. Facing a difficult Senate trial and possible conviction, Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president. Again, Carl Albert was next in line to the presidency. When Ford nominated Nelson Rockefeller as the new vice president, Albert expedited House consideration and confirmation of the choice. 

How do we measure speakers of the House? Historians love to rank presidents, as imprecise as that task is. Speakers are harder to evaluate than presidents. There are more of them, they are less well known, less is recorded in history about them, and they are much less the masters of their own fate. A great Speaker might be shadowed by a greater president. A weak speaker might preside over a dominant majority. Some are simply unknown and largely unknowable. Who is to say whether Speaker Langdon Cheves was a better speaker than Speaker John White or Speaker Joe Byrns? I could not, and I wrote a book on the subject.

In evaluating Speakers, one ought to consider how they met the challenges of their tenures. Henry Clay, for example, dominated the House for the better part of fifteen years, and under his leadership the House committee system was developed. Samuel Randall led the House to adopt significant rules changes, including the creation of the Rules Committee. Thomas Brackett Reed led the fight against obstructionism. Uncle Joe Cannon led a dominant Republican majority until the revolt against his power in 1910. Nicholas Longworth led a stable Republican majority in the 1920s and was perhaps the most popular and colorful of Speakers. Sam Rayburn served longer than any other Speaker and became an institution in his own right. Tip O'Neill led the Democratic opposition to President Reagan's program and left office with broad public approval. 

Other less well-known figures played important roles. Nathaniel Macon and Andrew Stevenson were loyal lieutenants for presidents Jefferson and Jackson respectively. James K. Polk had to deal with the abolitionists (including John Quincy Adams) and is credited with having done better than most. He is the only former Speaker to have become president. John B. Carlisle was an effective Democratic Speaker during the Cleveland administration but was constrained by the geographical divisions in the Democratic party; he could never get the best of his Democratic rival, Sam Randall. Champ Clark was a viable presidential candidate in 1912 but presided over the devolution of power from the speakership after the revolt against Cannon in 1910. Cactus Jack Garner was an effective Democratic minority leader in the 1920s but only served as speaker for two years before becoming Roosevelt's first vice president. Newt Gingrich led the Republican Revolution of 1994 but was driven from office after only two terms.

Where would Carl Albert fit into this mosaic? In my judgment, as good or better than most. He is unlikely to be remembered as a Speaker who dominated the House, or who drove its major achievements during his tenure. But it is not accurate to consign him to the role of observer of a passing tide. It is not obvious that a more aggressive approach to the reform agenda would have yielded results appreciably different or better than those obtained. Carl Albert served in perhaps the most difficult period in modern American history. His speakership witnessed dramatic legislative and political upheavals, and the House changed more under his leadership than at any time since the revolt against Cannon. Albert did not drive these changes, but the House weathered them under his leadership. The six Speakers whose tenures had the most impact on how the House does its business were Henry Clay, Samuel Randall, Thomas Brackett Reed, Champ Clark, Carl Albert, and Newt Gingrich. If Speakers are measured solely in terms of power going in and power coming out, Albert is near the head of the pack. Again, no Speaker since the Civil War had been asked to cope with divisions as deep or a constitutional crisis as serious as Watergate. These were the major decisions of his speakership, and by most accounts he got them right. He put the national interest above his own.

Carl Albert's speakership should also be placed in the context of those that followed. Albert's critics thought that he was insufficiently forceful; yet he presided over the most significant changes in the House and the most significant national crisis of the twentieth century, and he left office on his feet. His immediate successor, Tip O'Neill, consolidated the changes that had taken place during Albert's tenure but did not augment them. He played a highly visible role in American politics for a decade, held the Democratic majority together in the face of the Reagan onslaught, and attained a high enough Q-rating to attract the interest of Madison Avenue. The next three Speakers left office involuntarily: Jim Wright resigned in the face of ethics charges, Tom Foley was defeated for reelection to the House, and Newt Gingrich was in effect forced out by his own party. The current Speaker, Dennis Hastert, clings to a slender majority and copes with a divided Republican conference. 

It is useful to situate Carl Albert in the context of late-twentieth century American political development. In the 1970s it appeared that a liberal tide was eroding conservative institutional structures. In the 1980s it appeared that a conservative political tide was washing liberals to sea. In the 1990s President Clinton moved to the high center ground, leaving the partisans of the left and the right to struggle for control of the Congress. Carl Albert believed in a Congress that occupied the center ground. He played a key role in maintaining its balance between left and right. Because he was able to do so, he survived. Tip O'Neill was forced into a posture of defending the left against the right. Because the Democrats were able to hang on to their House majority, he survived. Over the past fifteen years the House has become polarized between left and right even as it has become more narrowly divided. The result has been a succession of doomed speakerships.

Carl Albert would have understood that a Speaker who sought to control policy would engender fierce partisan opposition. He would have sensed that the demand for institutional reform, especially when pressed by the Republicans, required a strong Democratic response. And he would have dismissed a parliamentary conception of the speakership outright. Above all, he would have insisted that the Speaker should stand for the House first and for partisan interest next. On this point, Albert always stood tall. 

Some of Albert's contemporaries will remember him as a man who worried a lot, who preferred comity to conflict, and whose nascent steps toward the "public speakership" that emerged under O'Neill were too tentative. Some frankly thought him too timid a partisan. Others will recall his fundamental decency, his dedication to the House and the Constitution, and his firmness during the major political crisis of the twentieth century. In the grand sweep of history, it is the major decisions that are remembered the most. In this respect, history will be kind to Carl Albert.

Ronald M. Peters, Jr. is Regents' Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma.  He served as Director and Curator of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, 1979-2000.  He is the author of The American Speakership (Johns Hopkins, 1990; 1997) and editor of The Speaker: Leadership in the U.S. House (Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1995). 

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