History of major dysfunctions in the US House

University of Kansas Professor Karl Brooks discusses dangerous historical parallels and real world impacts that stem from protracted leadership struggles in the US Congress such as this year’s struggles within the Republican party over whom to support for Speaker of the US House.

On October 3 of this year, Kevin McCarthy became the first Speaker of the US House of Representatives to have been removed from that office in the middle of a term. So far this year, the US House has had its two most contentious processes for selecting Speaker since 1859-1860. In 1855 and 1859, the contest for speaker lasted for two months before the House achieved a result, according to Wikipedia.1 In 1860 – February 1 – Republican William Pennington was elected Speaker on the 44th ballot, two months after the first ballot on December 5 of the year before.2 A year later, 1861 – February 1 – Texas became the seventh state to secede from the Union.3

Brooks was raised in Idaho and served in the 1970s as an intern with Idaho’s Senator Frank Church. He said that Republican and Democratic politicians at that time worked to understand the issues and honestly resolve their differences to benefit that US public. His experience with US congressional committees in the twenty-first century has been tragically different: Politicians today seem more interested in finding something they can ridicule in witness testimony than in making government work better for the US public.

Brooks holds a Master of Science from the London School of Economics, and a JD from the Harvard Law School. He practiced law in Boise, while serving three terms in the Idaho State Senate. Then he came to KU for a PhD in History and taught environmental history and law at KU for a decade before being appointed to administrator positions in the Environmental Protection Agency. He held other administrator positions in our nation’s court system before returning to the KU faculty.

Among oother things, Brooks has been a presidential appointee who has testified before Congress and has had many dealings with members and committees in the US Congress. His publications have focused primarily on environmental law.


  1. See the section on “19th century” in the Wikipedia article on “Speaker of the United States House of Representatives“. That article contains a section on “Multi-ballot elections“, which includes a table summarizing all the elections when the Speaker did not get a majority of votes on the first ballot, accessed 2023-10-30.
  2. Discussed in the “December 1859 – February 1860” section of of that same Wikipedia article.
  3. Discussed in the section on the “US Civil War” in the Wikiversity article on “Expertise of military leaders and national security experts“.


Copyright 2023 Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) 4.0 international license Karl Brooks and Spencer Graves.

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