A clerk is leading the House while race for speaker drags on

The House has tried — and failed — to elect a new speaker 11 times this week, leaving the chamber effectively in limbo.

It’s the first time in 100 years the House has struggled to elect someone for the role, and until it does, there are no rules. That means the House clerk, who served under the previous speaker, stays on — and is in charge.

That clerk is Cheryl Johnson, whose administrative tasks include creating and retaining the House Journal and calling new members to order. She is now leading the House through this tumultuous time — and keeping members in line.

Johnson has had the job since 2019, when then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “Without the clerk, Congress cannot fulfill its obligation to the American people.”

Johnson is the 36th House clerk. She is also the fourth woman, and the second Black woman, in the role. She’s been on the job over the course of two impeachments as well as the Jan. 6 insurrection — and now, all of the chaos over electing a new speaker.

Former Missouri congressman William Lacy Clay, who has known Johnson for more than four decades, spoke to her on Wednesday.

“She gave me all of the confidence in the world that she was up for the task,” Clay said.

An equally tricky job is being handled by Susan Cole and Tylease Alli — reading clerks whose role ranges from the mundane to the historic, like announcing that former President Donald Trump was impeached.

“You really had to have a strong, loud voice,” said Paul Hays, a former reading clerk who held the job for nearly two decades.

Hays said that given how often they’re on TV, clerks do gain some notoriety. But he said the only time he rehearsed his lines was during the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton in 1998.

“I knew there would be a lot of people watching that and I didn’t want to trip over any of the legal terms,” he said.

It’s a dynamic that Clay says Johnson — as head of the House until someone fills that chair — now knows about.

“She certainly does but she’s still Cheryl Johnson, that — that little girl that came to Washington, D.C., from Louisiana, and has made quite a name for herself,” Clay said.

Hays said House and reading clerks need to know all 435 people serving in the House, as well as how to pronounce their names and what states they’re from.