Meet Cheryl Johnson, the woman who directed Congress through historic chaos

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

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

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

<p>Clerk of the House of the Representatives Cheryl Johnson speaks to members Thursday in the House chamber as the House met for the third day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington.</p>

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Clerk of the House of the Representatives Cheryl Johnson speaks to members Thursday in the House chamber as the House met for the third day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington.

“Cheryl Johnson, the clerk of the House, for Speaker?” tweeted Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California on Thursday. “She’s been extraordinary without any rules passed and in having some sense of fairness and order.”

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 newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy 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.

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 remained on the dais until early Saturday morning, after McCarthy finally got his own party to rally behind him as speaker on the 15th round of balloting, the first time that the decision 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 D.C. 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 Rep. 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 Black 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 Rep. Julia Brownley of California said that presiding over the House can be a trying duty even in the best of times, but that Johnson has done 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.

<p>Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is sworn in as House Speaker early Saturday on the House floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.</p>

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is sworn in as House Speaker early Saturday on the House floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

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

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

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

That was apparent on Wednesday, when Republican Rep. 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.