On Thursday, Representative John Boehner of Ohio was once again chosen as speaker of the House of Representatives. So how exactly did that happen?
No, we’re not talking about the politics behind Boehner’s narrow victory–although that’s certainly worth talking about–but the process.
Boehner’s re-election by his constituents didn’t guarantee he would maintain the top post in Congress; the role is determined by members of the House.
The selection of the House speaker is mentioned in Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution:
“The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.”
But with such a scant word count, it’s little more than a mention–most of the selection process, as allowed by the Constitution, is determined by the House itself.
According to the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, the process customarily begins with each major party gathering for a caucus to nominate their candidate for speaker. Members typically vote for their party’s nominee, but they can vote for anyone.
In fact, since the Constitution doesn’t include any requirement that the speaker be a member of the House, members could technically vote for anyone as speaker. So if, say, Stephen Colbert chose nomination as speaker for his next faux campaign venture–and gained enough support–he could potentially be elected.
However, a non-member speaker is highly unlikely: throughout the history of Congress, all speakers have been current members of the House, since it has established that tradition in its rules.
According to the official House rules for the last Congress, the Speaker is “the only House officer who traditionally has been chosen from the sitting membership of the House. The Constitution does not limit eligibility to that class, but the practice has been followed invariably.”
Once the caucuses choose their nominees, the nominees–usually two, one from the Republicans and one from the Democrats–are presented to the entire House.
Then, the vote goes to the House all together. A candidate must receive an absolute majority of votes cast (which may be less than the full House because of vacancies, absences, or abstaining votes). If no one receives a majority, the roll call is repeated until a majority is reached.
With the 113th Congress, the contest was between John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Boehner won with 220 votes over Pelosi’s 192 votes. Of the Republicans, 10 voted for other conservatives and two abstained.
The Washington Post noted that it was the narrowest speaker victory since Newt Gingrich’s re-election in 1997, following an ethics admonishment. Boehner had faced resistance from conservative House members and others throughout the fiscal cliff debate, and he was recently berated by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for his delay of a vote on a hurricane relief bill.
Boehner will continue to face challenges as the fiscal cliff debate is renewed in the coming months. In addition, the authority of his role as speaker is currently waning.
The role of speaker has certainly evolved over the years. The History, Art & Archives of the House of Representatives describes this evolution:
“The Speakership [the Founders] envisioned resembled a parliamentary referee who would rule on floor debate but do little else. From this origin, the office rapidly evolved in complexity and influence, shaped by the likes of Henry Clay of Kentucky, Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, Joseph Cannon of Illinois, and Sam Rayburn of Texas. By the 20th century, the Speakership was the most potent, multifaceted office on Capitol Hill: presiding officer of the chamber; leader of the majority party; and, additionally, an elected Representative with responsibilities to a distinct district constituency like the other 434 voting Members of the House.”
In addition, due to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the speaker of the House is second in line, after the vice president, to succeed the president.
Holly Munson is assistant editor of Constitution Daily and programs coordinator at the National Constitution Center.
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