Meet Cheryl Johnson, the woman directing Congress through historic chaos

House Clerk Cheryl Johnson has become an unlikely folk hero in Washington this week, running the lower chamber of Congress with a steady hand as Republicans struggle to elect a speaker amid historic chaos.

Deploying only her own custom gavel and gently chiding words, Johnson has guided the House through multiple rounds of voting on live TV, pushing back when members of both parties get off topic or step out of line.

Her calm but stern demeanor has earned high marks on Capitol Hill and social media, where a number of people, including a member of Congress, have joked that lawmakers should just elect her speaker.

“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.”Play Video

Two members have even mistakenly addressed her as “Madam Speaker” instead of “Madam Clerk” in their remarks.

A little-known position outside the Capitol, the clerk is chosen by the members of Congress every two years, meaning Johnson’s job may be at risk now. Leaders in both parties say it will ultimately be up to the next speaker – whether that’s Kevin McCarthy or another Republican – to decide whether to reappoint her.

The job’s typical duties are the mundane but essential work of the House: preparing and delivering messages to the Senate, handling communications with the White House and certifying the passage of bills. 

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

But the clerk occasionally is thrust into the spotlight. Along with the House Sergeant at Arms, Johnson twice was charged with hand-delivering articles of impeachment against Donald Trump to the Senate. And the clerk is nominally in charge of the House when it convenes for the first time.

Normally, that’s measured in minutes, with the clerk using a special 13-inch lacquered maple gavel taken out of storage just for that day until she hands over duties to the new speaker. 

But Johnson has remained on the dais since Tuesday as McCarthy has repeatedly failed to get his own party to rally behind him as speaker, the first time that has gone to multiple rounds of ballots 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.”

Although she was named as clerk by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2018, Johnson has a more bipartisan background than some of her predecessors. She had previously worked as an aide to a committee chaired by former Speaker John Boehner — who recalled her through a spokesman as “always nice” — and on initiatives to boost DC museums, such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“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. 

A native of New Orleans, Johnson graduated from the University of Iowa and earned a law degree from Howard University. She’s the second African American to serve as House clerk and one of only four women to hold the job since 1789.

“I worked with Cheryl for years and am thrilled to see her up on that podium,” said Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution, jokingly adding that she wasn’t sure how thrilled Johnson is right now.

Democratic Representative Julia Brownley of California said that presiding over the House can be a trying duty even in the best of times, but that Johnson is doing a good job of going “straight down the middle” in keeping lawmakers in line. 

“Nobody understands really how tough it is until you’re up on the dais with the gavel in your hand,” she said. 

I am going to tell my grandchildren this is the Speaker of the 118th Congress.

Thank you Cheryl Johnson for your grace, excellence, and brilliance during this process. #SpeakerElection— Mayor Devin T. Murphy (@DevinMurphyDTM) January 4, 2023

Even Republicans, mired in an embarrassing intraparty fight, have shown their appreciation. 

“She’s doing great,” said Pennsylvania Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican. “She hasn’t screwed anything up yet.”

To make things more difficult, the House can’t pass any rules until it chooses a speaker, meaning that Johnson has few tools to keep proceedings in line.

That was apparent on Wednesday, when Republican Representative Kat Cammack of Florida lamented that Democrats were celebrating her party’s inability to come to an agreement. 

“They want us to fight each other,” she said, urging her fellow Republicans to back McCarthy. “That has been made clear by the popcorn and blankets and alcohol that is coming over there.”

Democrats began booing and shouting for the claim about alcohol to be stricken from the record – a common request when a lawmaker has stepped over a rhetorical line – which a grinning Cammack laughed off. 

But with no rules in place, Johnson couldn’t strike the words. She waited, banged the gavel several times, then gently chastised Cammack.

“The clerk would ask all members-elect to abide by the established decorum of the House while making nominations,” she said. 

On Thursday, Johnson began the proceedings by noting that she has “the responsibility to preserve order and decorum in the chamber” and asked members to address all questions to her and not attack each other directly.

Members of both parties stood to applaud, a rare moment of bipartisan agreement in the chamber. 

–With assistance from Billy House.

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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