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What does it take to depose the House speaker?

Hint: There’s a secret list of speakers in waiting

- September 25, 2023
(cc) Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño

Here in D.C., all eyes are on the speakership drama in the House of Representatives. Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) antagonists on the far right of the House Republican conference have threatened to depose McCarthy as speaker, a position McCarthy won in January 2023 – but only after breaking the post-Civil War record for the most ballots needed (15) to get the job.

McCarthy has made some concessions to his GOP opponents. For instance, he agreed to their demand that the House restore a longstanding rule that allows any member to go to the House floor with a resolution declaring the speakership vacant and demand that their colleagues vote on it. Some argue the rule is a sword of Damocles hanging over the speaker. That’s why many think McCarthy has been relentlessly trying to cater to his far-right flank – even though their proposals haven’t passed the GOP-led House and would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate.

The far right flank has voted against considering even those measures that have been packed with their own priorities. At the same time, a bipartisan group is pressuring McCarthy to lean on Democratic votes to pass a stopgap bill that would avoid a government shutdown after September 30th. Maybe that’s what McCarthy’s GOP antagonists are gunning for: Give McCarthy no other option, so that if he wants to avoid a government shutdown he must make a deal with Democrats – and then force a vote that would depose him.  

But is the threat to vacate the speakership credible? Could McCarthy’s opponents attract enough support to boot him from the speaker position? I’m not so sure. The rules of the game matter here. And even some House members might not know all the relevant rules. But you’re in good hands here.

How the rule works

Under House rules and precedents, any member of the chamber can introduce a resolution to declare the Office of the Speaker vacant. Here’s one then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) introduced in 2015 to pressure Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to heed policy demands from the Freedom Caucus. And here’s a draft resolution from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), found by a reporter in a Capitol bathroom. (Can’t make this stuff up!)

Most important, any member introducing such a resolution can go to the House floor and be recognized to announce their intent to offer the resolution as a matter of “constitutional privilege.”  

Such questions of privilege have precedence over all other motions – save one. The Speaker is allowed to move to delay consideration of the resolution for up to two legislative days. At that point, defenders of the Speaker might try to dodge a vote with a motion to table (a.k.a. kill) the resolution. If that fails, the Speaker’s supporters would need to vote to directly defeat the resolution. Some minority party members might even vote against removing McCarthy: The devil you know might be better than the one you don’t. 

It’s never succeeded

The House has never acted to remove its speaker. True, speakers have come under pressure to resign – as Boehner did in 2015 after Meadows introduced a resolution to declare the speakership empty. (Note though that Meadows failed to offer the measure as a privileged resolution on the House floor, forfeiting the opportunity to pursue a swift floor vote.)

In fact, the House has voted just once on a resolution to declare the speakership vacant. And it failed.

The year was 1910. After years of rising anger about Speaker Joseph Cannon’s (R-Ill.) tight-fisted control of the House agenda and exclusion of Progressive GOP priorities, a bipartisan coalition voted to oust the speaker from the chamber’s pivotal Rules Committee and to expand its membership. Shorn of his prized spot on the committee that structures the chamber’s agenda, Cannon faced his opponents on the floor and called on them to try to remove him, saying, “show the courage of [your] convictions, and submit the motion vacating the Speakership.” 

Cannon prevailed, 155-191, slightly fracturing his own party. Still, Democrats viewed their foe – known as Czar Cannon for his iron-fisted rule – as their best asset in the fall campaign to win back control of the House. They were correct.

What if this time is different?

If McCarthy’s opponents succeed, many suggest chaos will consume the House, with multiple ballots again needed to seat a speaker. But the rules would be slightly different this time around.

When a new Congress meets for the very first time, it can do no business except to elect its speaker or to adjourn. It can’t even swear in its members. Only after the House elects a speaker can the chamber adopt rules to govern its proceedings. That added to the uncertainty of the current Congress’s opening days, as McCarthy struggled through that record number of ballots to secure the job. But once in place, House rules remain for the rest of a Congress, unless the House votes to change them. So if McCarthy were to be deposed mid-Congress, the House could continue its business even before electing a new speaker. 

How, you might ask? Enter the secret list. Let’s call it the list of speakers-in-waiting. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the House revamped its rules – anticipating a scenario in which a speaker might be unable to perform their duties (whether due to an incapacitating illness, death, or a successful motion to depose them). In the case of a vacancy, the rule now requires the speaker to deliver to the Clerk of the House an ordered list of House members who will act as the “speaker pro tempore” until the election of a speaker or another speaker pro tempore. Importantly, although the rule has never been tested, an acting speaker appears to exercise all the authority of a real speaker – perhaps dampening the incentive to elect a permanent one. 

Who’s first on the secret list?

That’s the thing. We don’t know. But it could matter for the timing and outcome of a vote to elect a new speaker should McCarthy be deposed.

For starters, an acting speaker might reduce the chances for chaos – limiting pressure to swiftly elect a new one. True, the rule intends the acting speaker to serve only until a new speaker (or another speaker pro tempore) is elected. But depending on whom McCarthy put atop his list, the acting speaker might be acceptable enough to most Republicans to take the urgency out of an immediate vote. That might be the case if McCarthy picked one of his trusted and well-liked allies, such as Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) or Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.). Even Democrats might be (secretly) content with the choice.

What if McCarthy put Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) first on the list – perhaps a reward for her loyalty in his contest for the speakership? Point is, we don’t know how lawmakers will react. But the identity of the acting speaker could hasten agreement on a replacement speaker. 

But can any Republican other than McCarthy secure the votes required to be elected speaker? If not, the right of any lawmaker to seek removal of the speaker might not be much of a threat to McCarthy. In other words, the rule might not prove to be a sword of Damocles that threatens McCarthy’s hold on power. If that’s the case, we’ll likely never know who tops McCarthy’s list.

Image: (cc) Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño