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Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy on January 5, 2023. (Photo: Office of the Speaker).

Scarinci: Chaotic Election for Speaker of the House Highlights Power of the Office

By Donald Scarinci, January 30 2023 9:11 am

The 2023 election of the Speaker of the House in the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives was fraught with drama. It took 15 ballots over four days for Rep. Kevin McCarthy to win.  The last time the House failed to quickly choose a Speaker was 100 years ago, with nine ballots in 1923. McCarthy’s election was the longest since before the Civil War.

Although it is not required, Members of the House typically vote for the candidate of their own party. In times of heightened political polarization, however, party infighting can bog down the process. The stakes are high because of the extraordinary power of the Speaker and his or her control over House activities for two years.

What Does the Speaker of the House Do?

The Speaker of the House plays a pivotal role in the federal government. The Speaker is second in line to succeed the President (after the Vice President) and is the presiding officer of the House. In modern times, the Speaker also serves as the chief spokesperson for the party holding the majority. The power of the Speaker has ebbed and flowed over the years, but it has largely grown along with the country’s two-party system.

As the parliamentary leader of the House, the Speaker’s duties include maintaining order, managing proceedings, and governing the administration of its business. When the House is considering measures on the floor, the Speaker’s responsibilities include recognizing Members who seek to address the House, enforcing the House rules, and putting questions on matters arising on the floor to a vote.

How Is the Speaker of the House Chosen?

Pursuant to Article I, section 2 of the Constitution, the House chooses its Speaker and other officers. The Speaker is the only House officer who traditionally has been chosen from the sitting membership of the House, although the practice is not mandated by the Constitution.

Soon after the new Congress is elected, each party holds an organizing caucus to select its candidate. The Speaker election then occurs at the beginning of a new Congress, before elected Members can even be sworn into office. The winning candidate for Speaker must receive an absolute majority of all the votes cast for individuals. As detailed by the Congressional Research Service, the number of votes needed may be less than a majority of the full membership of the House due to vacancies, absentees, or Members answering “present.” If no candidate obtains a majority vote, the roll call continues until a Speaker is elected.

The Speaker’s term of office begins upon taking the oath of office and ends on the expiration of the Congress in which the Speaker was elected (unless the Speaker has resigned, died, or been removed from office). While Congress previously limited the Speaker’s term of office to four consecutive Congresses, there are currently no term restrictions.

Has the House Previously Struggled to Elect a Speaker?

While certainly rare, protracted Speaker elections have occurred several times throughout the country’s history. In 1923, Republican Frederick Gillett initially failed to gain a majority due to objections by Members from the Progressive Party and from the “progressive” wing of the Republican Party. On the ninth ballot, enough Members finally agreed to vote for Gillett after the Republican leadership agreed to several procedural reforms demanded by the progressives.

Congress cannot convene or swear in new members until a Speaker is elected, but on two occasions, the House agreed to choose a Speaker by a plurality of votes and then confirmed the selection by majority vote. In 1849, the House was in session 19 days without a Speaker after candidates failed to receive a majority of the votes cast. After 59 ballots, the House finally adopted a resolution declaring that a plurality could elect the Speaker.

Just seven years later, the House failed again with the process taking more than two months. The House was deeply divided on the issue of slavery and 129 votes were taken without any candidate receiving a majority of the votes cast. As the New York Tribune wrote at the time, “This is not a mere contest as to a Speaker of the House; it is but an incident in a long and arduous struggle which is to determine whether slavery will be the pole star of our National career.” To break the stalemate, the House adopted a resolution allowing the Speaker to be elected by a plurality. The House later ratified the vote by a majority.

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