It had been three days of one failed vote after another for the Speaker of the US House, and the roomful of lawmakers were worn down into weary resignation. As Representative French Hill of Arkansas stood up to once again nominate Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, he started with a thank you.
“Let me express my deep appreciation, and appreciation of everybody in this room, for the work you’re doing Madame Clerk,” he said.
The House responded with a standing ovation – a rare display of bipartisanship and even rarer enthusiasm after a grinding few days in the chamber. Someone shouted: “Johnson for Speaker!” to rousing laughter.
Standing in position at the front of the chamber, House Clerk Cheryl Johnson clasped her hands, smiled politely and carried on.
Ms Johnson, the 117th US House Clerk, has become an unlikely celebrity in the political drama paralysing the House. And with her calm and firm demeanour, Ms Johnson and her gavel have at times felt like the only defence against total dysfunction.
Some House members this week have accidentally called her Madam Speaker, instead of Madam Clerk.
And Democratic Representative Ro Khanna of California tweeted Thursday: “She’s been extraordinary without any rules passed and in having some sense of fairness and order.”
She has been in the job four years
In ordinary times, the clerk is a little-known position, elected by lawmakers every two years when the House gathers for a new Congress. The job is mostly administrative, with duties like delivering messages to the US Senate and certifying the passage of all bills and resolutions by the chamber.
And every two years, when a new Congress convenes for the first time, the clerk is put in charge of the House until it has elected a Speaker.
Normally, this job lasts for mere minutes. But the Republicans’ failure to select a speaker has left Ms Johnson in charge for three full days, and counting.
She is no stranger to a break from norms
Ms Johnson, a New Orleans native who has a law degree from Howard University, a historically black college in Washington DC, is one of only four women to hold the title and the second African American in the role.
She was first named clerk in 2018 by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The nomination followed two decades in the House, working as an aide to both Democrats and Republicans.
“Cheryl Johnson embodies commitment to public service,” Mrs Pelosi said at the time. “We are thrilled that she will be returning to the House.”
There are history-making moments too: Ms Johnson was twice tasked with hand-delivering articles of impeachment against former President Donald Trump.
In 2020 and again in 2021, she led House impeachment managers to deliver the documents to the US Senate.
She has managed the chaos with a steady hand
What Ms Johnson is doing this week is no easy task. Without a House Speaker, or any members actually sworn in, there are technically no official rules to abide by.
This means Ms Johnson has had to enforce order with nothing but her microphone and lacquered maple gavel.
In one memorable episode, she was forced to intervene when Republican Representative Kat Cammack of Florida complained that Democrats were celebrating the Republicans’ drama.
“They want us to fight each other,” Ms Cammack side of the Democrats, adding, seemingly in jest: “That has been made clear by the popcorn and blankets and alcohol that is coming over there.”
Democrats shouted and demanded the false claim about alcohol be struck from the record. But without rules in place, Ms Johnson could only wait, strike her gavel, and offer a gentle rebuke.
“The clerk would ask all members-elect to abide by the established decorum of the House,” the clerk said, standing in front of the large and vacant Speaker’s chair.
This especially weighty week for Ms Johnson has not seemed to come with any added glamour.
The clerk’s office is across the hall from that of Majority Whip Tom Emmer, who’s office has become the de facto host for Republican negotiations.
The coincidence means that Ms Johnson’s office door has, for days, been consistently blocked by a flock of journalists in search of developments.
Even after this brief stint as Capitol Hill celebrity, Ms Johnson’s tenure may soon come to an end.
The next candidate for clerk will be put up by the next House Speaker – whoever that may be.