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Cheryl Johnson, who made history as House clerk, gets another round of applause

Jim Saksa, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

Former House Clerk Cheryl Johnson returned to the Capitol on Tuesday to accept an award that acknowledged the role she played during two of the most historic and chaotic moments in congressional history: the attack on Jan. 6, 2021, and Kevin McCarthy’s drawn-out election as speaker, when she calmly guided the chamber through its most ballots since 1860.

“There was a time where not everyone on television knew who Cheryl Johnson was,” said Jane Campbell, president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. “Now that’s changed.”

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who tapped Johnson for clerk in 2018, praised her pick’s professionalism, including “her poise, her judgment, and her management prowess.”

The historical society bestows the Freedom Award on those “who exhibit extraordinary dedication to freedom, democracy, and representative government.” The award is named after the statue personifying freedom that stands atop the Capitol Dome.

During the ceremony in Statuary Hall, Johnson said the award made her think of Philip Reid, the enslaved African American who supervised the casting of the statue, and the hope that America “would live up to its ideals of equality and freedom.”

Even though she was honored in part for her actions on Jan. 6, only Johnson herself did more than hint at that day’s events.


“I also think about Jan. 6, when brave clerk staff stopped to protect iconic artifacts that had been on the House floor for centuries, even as U.S. Capitol Police were asking them to move as quickly as they could to save their lives,” she said. “Democracy is fragile but it is also stubbornly resilient. And each of us has a role to play in ensuring its longevity.”

This is the third year in a row that the society has recognized individuals who served on Jan. 6: Last year, the Capitol Police split the award with the Metropolitan Police Department, and in 2021, lawmakers who led the counting of electoral college votes — Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California — shared the honor.

Johnson’s poise was also on full display at the start of the 118th Congress, when it took McCarthy 15 votes over four days to win the speaker’s gavel. Before one of those rounds, Republican Rep. French Hill of Arkansas acknowledged Johnson, leading the entire chamber to rise in a standing ovation. “Let me express my deep appreciation, and appreciation of everybody in this room, for the work you’re doing, Madam Clerk,” Hill said.

Speaking at Tuesday’s ceremony, McCarthy recalled that moment. “When I was elected speaker last year, I’d like to think I got a loud applause,” he said. “But the loudest applause was for Cheryl and the job that she did. It was from every single member on both sides of the aisle. Honestly, you deserved it.”


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