To maintain order in the Speaker-less chamber, House Clerk Cheryl Johnson has taken center stage amid the confusion among Republicans trying to select the next Speaker. Johnson, the House clerk since 2019, is in charge of the chamber instead of her usual responsibilities of delivering messages to the Senate and certifying the passage of bills because the room cannot seat members without a new Speaker being elected. Johnson has served as the House clerk since 2019.
She has limited instructions for maintaining order amidst the mayhem because the House has not yet approved any rules for this session.
Johnson, a New Orleans native, graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in media and public communication before attending Howard University to pursue a law degree. Before becoming a House clerk, she spent ten years as the Smithsonian’s director of government relations.
Johnson, the second person of color and the fourth woman to occupy the position of House Speaker, has presided over six rounds of voting so far and has had to interject in members’ floor remarks to maintain control of a house amid inter- and intraparty conflicts.
At a press conference on Thursday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the Democratic leader in the House and the candidate with the most votes for Speaker in each round of voting, lauded Johnson.
“I think Cheryl Johnson, a historical figure in her own right, is doing a very good job under difficult circumstances,” Jeffries said.
But Johnson has experienced enough turbulence during her brief employment as the House clerk, not just during the Speakership. Johnson has experienced two impeachment procedures since taking the seat in 2019 and the Capitol uprising on January 6, 2021.
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Every two years, at the beginning of a new Congress, candidates run for the position of House clerk. After a Speaker is chosen, a clerk is proposed by each party.
“Cheryl Johnson, the clerk of the House, for Speaker?” tweeted Democratic Representative Ro Khanna of California on Thursday. “She’s been extraordinary without any rules passed and in having some sense of fairness and order.”
Cheryl Johnson, the clerk of the House, for Speaker? She’s been extraordinary without any rules passed and in having some sense of fairness and order.
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) January 5, 2023
Two members mistakenly addressed her as “Madam Speaker” instead of “Madam Clerk” in their remarks.
The clerk, a little-known post outside the Capitol, is picked by Congressmen every two years. Thus Johnson’s job may be in jeopardy right now. It will ultimately be up to the next Speaker, Kevin McCarthy or another Republican, to decide whether to reappoint her, according to leaders in both parties.
Regular tasks include preparing and delivering messages to the Senate, managing communications with the White House, and certifying the passage of measures. These routine but crucial tasks are characteristic of the role.
A moment of unity: Standing ovation in appreciation of House Clerk Cheryl Johnson pic.twitter.com/XMHk4RNBh0
— Josh Campbell (@joshscampbell) January 5, 2023
But sometimes, the clerk is made the center of attention. Johnson was repeatedly accused of hand-delivering articles of impeachment against Donald Trump to the Senate and the House Sergeant at Arms. The clerk is formally in command when the House meets for the first time.
Usually, it takes minutes, and the clerk does so while utilizing a unique 13-inch lacquered maple gavel that she pulled out of storage specifically for that day until she turns over duties to the new Speaker.
However, Johnson had stayed in that position since Tuesday, when McCarthy repeatedly failed to win his party’s support to become Speaker, the first time that process required multiple rounds of voting since 1923.
When a bystander noted that Johnson was getting a lot of attention this week, her response was dry and self-effacing: “I need that,” she said. Then, seeing two security officers flanking her, she added, “They aren’t here for me.”
— University of Iowa (@uiowa) January 5, 2023
Johnson has a more robust partisan history than some of her predecessors, even though former Speaker Nancy Pelosi nominated her as a clerk in 2018. She had previously worked on campaigns to support DC museums, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and as an assistant to a committee chaired by former Speaker John Boehner, who remembered her as “always kind” through a spokeswoman.
“She is living up to the reputation that led her to have this job in the first place,” said Danny Weiss, an ex-chief of staff to Johnson’s boss at the time, former Representative George Miller, a California Democrat, praising her “high degree of integrity” and lack of partisanship.
Rep. Kat Cammack accused Democrats of drinking on the House floor amid the speaker fight, prompting howls and boos across the chamber.
"They want us to fight each other. That much has been made clear by the popcorn and blankets and alcohol that has come in over there," she said. pic.twitter.com/LNpwYrR6Of
— POLITICO (@politico) January 4, 2023
Johnson, a New Orleans native, attended Howard University for his law degree after graduating from the University of Iowa. She is one of just four women to occupy the position of House clerk since 1789 and the second African American to do so.
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