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Meet Cheryl Johnson, the House clerk managing the speaker votes

House Clerk Cheryl Johnson receives a standing ovation in the House chamber on Thursday, the third day of speaker elections.
Anna Moneymaker
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Getty Images
House Clerk Cheryl Johnson receives a standing ovation in the House chamber on Thursday, the third day of speaker elections.

The speaker is usually the person running things in the House of Representatives.

But in the absence of a speaker, that job has fallen to House Clerk Cheryl Johnson.

Johnson has calmly guided proceedings, including doing the time-consuming and repetitive work of calling on lawmakers to make nomination speeches and cast their votes — and announcing the results.

She also reminded them on Thursday to maintain decorum and order, including by refraining "from engaging in personalities toward other members-elect," in brief remarks that were met with a massive round of applause.

Johnson has drawn praise from both sides of the aisle this week for making sure the voting process remains respectful and orderly — despite the fact that the House hasn't even been able to pass rules for its newest session.

When Arkansas Rep. French Hill rose on Thursday to nominate Rep. Kevin McCarthy, he began his speech by thanking Johnson.

"First let me express my deep appreciation, and appreciation of everybody in this room, for the work you're doing, Madame Clerk," he said, prompting a standing ovation from many lawmakers and at least one cry of "Johnson for speaker!"

What is the role of the House clerk?

The Office of the House Clerk says it is responsible for performing administrative functions for the House.

Those include creating and retaining the House Journal, calling new members to order, tracking questions of order and managing the offices of retired or deceased representatives.

Lawmakers vote to elect a House clerk — and other House officers — when a new Congress gathers every two years. That usually happens right after the speaker election — meaning even once the House chooses its speaker, it may go on to nominate and potentially elect a different clerk.

Cheryl Johnson (L), clerk of the House of Representatives, carries an article of impeachment against former President Donald Trump to the Senate on Jan. 25, 2021.
J. Scott Applewhite / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Cheryl Johnson (L), clerk of the House of Representatives, carries an article of impeachment against former President Donald Trump to the Senate on Jan. 25, 2021.

Who is Cheryl Johnson?

Johnson has held the role since 2019, serving in both the 116th and 117th Congress.

The New Orleans native studied journalism and communications at the University of Iowa, holds a law degree from Howard University and completed the senior management program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

She worked in the House for nearly 20 years — serving as counsel for its committee on education and the workforce as well as its subcommittee on libraries and memorials — before spending a decade at the Smithsonian Institution, most recently as the director of the Smithsonian's Office of Government Relations.

Johnson is the fourth woman and second Black person to hold the role of House clerk.

And she's seen plenty of historic moments in her role over the last four years, including two presidential impeachments (she hand-delivered articles of impeachment against former President Donald Trump in 2020 and 2021) and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

What are people saying about Johnson?

Lawmakers have praised Johnson for her steady leadership this week.

"Our clerk has stepped up and reflects our House's best tradition of preparation and dedication to this institution, and we're grateful," Hill said at the beginning of his nomination speech on Thursday.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., also sang Johnson's praises in a tweet on Wednesday.

"Cheryl Johnson, the clerk of the House, for Speaker?" Khanna wrote. "She's been extraordinary without any rules passed and in having some sense of fairness and order."

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic leader and nominee for speaker, gave Johnson credit at a press conference Thursday.

He called her "a historic figure in her own right" and said she "is doing a very good job under difficult circumstances."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.