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Majority Elects Minority Chairman

January 9, 1924

Photo of Senator Ellison Smith of South Carolina

On January 9, 1924, "one of the most stubborn fights over a chairmanship in the history of the Senate" reached a bitter and exhausting conclusion. For the first time, a minority-party senator won election as chairman of a major committee over the majority party's determined opposition. At stake was leadership of the powerful Senate Interstate Commerce Committee.

This event occurred at a time of great political volatility. Several months earlier, President Warren Harding's unexpected death had abruptly placed Calvin Coolidge in the White House. Senate Republican Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, in the Senate since 1893, and that body's most senior member, hated Coolidge, his bitter home-state party rival. The 1922 mid-term elections had reduced his party's majority by eight seats, leaving 51 Republicans—whose ranks included seven independent-minded members—and 45 Democrats. Aging and irritable, Lodge showed little interest by 1924 in working for unity in a party already deeply divided between conservative and progressive factions. With that year's presidential election campaign just ahead, prospects for enacting a substantive legislative program seemed remote.

When the 68th Congress convened in December 1923, Iowa's conservative Republican senator, Albert Cummins, expected to continue serving as Interstate Commerce Committee chairman and Senate president pro tempore—posts that he had held since the Republicans took control of the Senate in 1919. As president pro tempore at a time when there was no vice president, Cummins stood to gain both prestige and the vice president's higher salary. Deeply opposed to Cummins, Progressive Republicans hoped to gain the Interstate Commerce Committee's chairmanship for that panel's second most senior member, Wisconsin progressive Robert La Follette. To accomplish this, they threatened to shift their vital seven votes to another candidate for president pro tempore unless Cummins stepped aside as committee chair. Conservative and mainstream Republicans, however, feared La Follette's influence as committee chair and encouraged Cummins to drop his bid for the president pro tempore's post in order to preserve his chairmanship. For his part, Cummins decided to fight for both positions.

The resulting struggle kept the Senate in turmoil for more than a month into the new session. Neither Cummins nor the committee's ranking Democrat, South Carolina's Ellison Smith, could muster the necessary majority. On January 9, 1924, after 32 ballots, the Progressive Republicans, in their desperation to block Cummins, reluctantly provided the votes necessary to elect Democrat Smith.