The Process for Electing a Speaker of the House

CPI Staff — Tuesday, November 20, 2018

As the incoming majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats are preparing to elect their next Speaker. Will Nancy Pelosi return to the post, which she previously held from 2007 to 2010, or will a younger generation of Members succeed her?

More importantly, however, just how does a Speaker get elected?

According to Democratic caucus rules, there are not just one–but two–votes for Speaker. The first takes place in a secret, closed door conference meeting, by secret ballot. The second takes place on the House floor, where the Speaker candidate must be supported by the entire caucus — regardless of how an individual may have voted originally.

In other words, the first, secret-ballot vote is for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. It’s the floor vote that matters. However, Democrat conference rules bind their members to vote on the floor for whomever is nominated by the first conference vote.

On the House floor, a Speaker candidate must win an absolute majority of all votes cast to claim the gavel. Since 1839, votes for Speaker on the House floor are cast vive voce, or by voice, meaning that each Member names aloud whom he or she favors for Speaker.

The Congressional Research Service puts it this way:

To be elected Speaker, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast, which may be less than a majority of the full membership of the House because of vacancies, absentees, or Members voting ‘present.’ Although the major parties nominate candidates for the position of Speaker, there is no limitation on for whom Members may vote. In fact, there is no requirement that the Speaker be a Member of the House…. If no candidate receives the requisite majority, the roll call is repeated until a Speaker is elected.

Some Democrats have raised Constitutional questions on the party’s processes for selecting Speaker, noting that the rule binding Democrats to vote on the floor for whomever the conference has selected is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution.

All the Constitution states in Article One, Section 2, “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”

Though the rule is theoretically not enforced, some believe this is bad process and a full court press of Pelosi allies has already begun to amplify the threat of consequences for not supporting the conference. Typically, each party presents one candidate for voting on the floor.

According to the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, “When a Congress convenes for the first time, each major party conference or caucus nominates a candidate for Speaker. Members customarily elect the Speaker by roll call vote. A Member usually votes for the candidate from his or her own party conference or caucus but can vote for anyone, whether that person has been nominated or not.”

This matters because the Speaker of the House is a Constitutional office elected by the body most directly accountable to the people.

In a sense, every American has a voice. As legislative procedure expert Matt Glassman writes, “The key structural feature of the Speaker election is that it is the only leadership office that is elected by the entire membership of the House. All other leadership positions—majority and minority leader, party whips, and lesser offices such as caucus chair—are selected privately by the parties in caucus elections.”