During his nearly four-decade career in Congress, Republican Leader Bob Michel of Illinois had only one chance to preside over the House. Ironically, his short-lived time in the Speaker’s chair came when the Democrats held the majority and because his colleague Speaker Tom Foley of Washington decided that Michel had waited long enough to wield the gavel.
On November 29, 1994, the House met for a brief, lame-duck session. The proceedings, which lasted only one day and took place after the November elections for the 104th Congress (1995–1997), garnered national attention. For the first time in 40 years, Republicans were preparing to take control of the House. Adding to the historical significance, powerful and long-serving Democratic committee chairmen like Jack Brooks of Texas and Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois lost their re-election bids. Even Speaker Foley couldn’t escape the sweeping changes that led to Republicans picking up 54 seats. The first Speaker unseated since Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania in 1862, Foley nonetheless found himself in the unenviable position of calling the House into a special late-November session to vote on a world trade agreement.
Lost in many of the headlines about the Republican Revolution and the impending changes in the House was the retirement of a veteran lawmaker, Bob Michel, who had led the party for more than a decade and whose long career included service alongside Speaker Joe Martin of Massachusetts and President Gerald Ford. First elected to the House in 1956, Michel rose up the leadership ladder becoming Republican Whip for three terms before his election as Leader in the 97th Congress (1981–1983). For his entire congressional career, Michel and fellow Republicans were relegated to the House minority. During that time, Michel worked closely with Democratic Leaders such as Foley—the two met regularly even after Foley became Speaker.
On the last day in Congress, Foley shared the spotlight with his Republican colleague by inviting Michel to the Speaker’s chair to preside over the House. “Mr. Speaker, you and I have served in this body together since 1965, and during that time we have usually found ourselves on different sides of the issues,” Michel told Foley during the proceedings. “But we have forged a friendship for one another based on our mutual respect and love for the institution.” It was an emotional moment for both House leaders, and the men embraced as Foley passed Michel the gavel. The House recognized the moment as a poignant and symbolic gesture and responded with a standing ovation. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to wield this gavel at least one time and actually sit in the chair,” Michel remarked to Speaker Foley. “It was something to behold.”
Sources: New York Times, November 30, 1994; Washington Post, November 30, 1994; Philadelphia Inquirer, November 30, 1994; Boston Globe, November 30, 1994; Congressional Record, House 103rd Cong., 2nd sess. (29 November 1994).Follow @USHouseHistory