It would be hard to follow the news and not be aware of the upcoming contentious election of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The stew pot of politics is ripe with intrigue, posturing and backroom dealings. The Republican party has but a slim majority and within its own ranks there is deep division. There are at least six candidates who have indicated they plan to stand for election. Those that are “in the know” (and does not include me, not in this or any imaginable universe) assure us that this is likely to go into a contested ballot – despite assurances from the supposed front runner that he had adequate votes to clinch a first round victory of a simple majority. But happens if he does not?The short answer: you keeping voting until someone get a majority of votes from Representatives-elect. Actually… to be exact, to be elected speaker a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast, as opposed to an absolute majority of the full membership of the House. That being said, the Representatives-elect are voting on a slate of candidates separately chosen by the majority- and minority-party caucuses. These candidates are elected by their party members at the organizing caucuses held soon after the new Congress is elected. While the current coverage casts the votes under the shadow of naked politics, it should always be remembered that the Speaker of the House is by law second in line to succeed the President, after the Vice President.
Contested ballots were quite normal in the 19th century. Eleven of the 14 multi-ballot elections happened between 1800 and 1899. The fewest number of electoral tries was 2, the most was 133! But if you have been reading the news, you knew all this.
Did you know that the Speaker of the House is not required to be an elected member of the House of Representatives? I could be nominated to stand for the Speaker position (bad idea). The Constitution provides for election of a speaker but does not require House membership to serve in that position. That’s because the office was not conceived as a partisan agent, but rather as one serving the whole House and, in that role, the entire nation. The Constitution anticipated a leader respected across the broadest possible spectrum of the American people.
I have to admit that in this current political climate there is some appeal to the idea of a non-partisan Speaker. I’d settle for a lightly partisan speaker. I liked the1993 movie “Dave,” in which ordinary citizen Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline), who runs a temporary employment agency is hired to impersonate President Bill Mitchell. In the comedic turn, President Mitchell suffers a stroke, and the scheming White House staff use Dave to impersonate the President in order to avoid a Constitutional crisis. There is one scene in which Dave asks his accountant Murray to come in and help balance the national budget. Were it that simple in real life.
The House of Representatives and its rules are byzantine on its good days. While there is a part of me that wants the mystical Jefferson Smith of the Montana Boy Rangers (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, the 1939 political comedy starring James Stewart) to come in and make things right, call even the most hardened politico to good common sense… I suspect the Rules of the House and the Parliamentarian require someone with existing knowledge of the maze.
Stay tuned for how it all turns out. By the way, please contact your Representative-elect if you would like to “toss your hat into the ring.”