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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Camden: Don’t bet on outside speaker


“The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers …”

— U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 1.

As soon as Kevin McCarthy was in danger of losing his spot atop the House pecking order, pundits and a few politicians began pointing to this line in the Constitution to suggest an outsider could be named to the post.

This happens whenever a sitting speaker is in trouble. Other times, it’s a bit of trivia that sticks in the part of the brain that is only activated by the Final Jeopardy category of Constitutional Congressional Curiosities.

If it seems vaguely familiar, that’s likely because similar speculation burbled up during the constant lulls between last January’s series of votes for speaker that had to be filled with something, however spurious.

Spurious because, although Art. I Sec. 2 is somewhat nondescript in its language, the House members in practice have been consistent, whether they were Federalists, Whigs, Democrats, Republicans, Populists or Progressives. They have never elected a speaker who was not a member of the House. To do so would be to admit that no one among the 435 representatives is capable of steering the ship.

There always have been — and likely always will be — people in the House willing to put themselves forward for the job, whether they are a good candidate or not. Recent suggestions for the job were possibly more fanciful than in the past, including former President Donald Trump or former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican.

Late-night talk show hosts probably salivated when Trump said many people had been talking to him about the job, only to shed a tear the next day when he announced support for one of the leading candidates. Trump was not, however, the first former president to be suggested as an outside speaker in the midst of a leadership crisis.

When Jim Wright’s days as speaker were numbered in 1989 amid a scandal over ethics violations, some people suggested former President Jimmy Carter should be named speaker as someone who was outside the fray and of high moral character. Tom Foley of Eastern Washington was chosen.

Much of what I know about speakers — along with the fact that James Madison, the author of the Constitution, was prone to inventive spelling and capitalization — I learned covering Foley’s election.

Speakers are usually people who have been part of their party’s leadership team, have been around long enough to know how the rules can be put to their advantage and have made more friends and allies than enemies among members of their party. The number of friends and enemies among the other party is immaterial, because the speaker is always elected by the majority party, once its members settle among themselves on a candidate.

While some conservative commentators and a few Republicans tried to blame Democrats for McCarthy’s removal, it should be clear to all that the chance of support from the other side was extremely unlikely. Along with the animosity between the two sides, plus the fact that McCarthy never asked for such help and could have lost more GOP votes if he had, precedent was against that.

A motion to vacate is so rare that there’s not a long record to compare. The only other such vote took place in 1910, when Speaker Joseph Cannon, an Illinois Republican, faced a revolt from the progressive wing in his party over what some considered his dictatorial ways of refusing to schedule their bills for votes.

Enough progressive Republicans joined with all the Democrats to strip Cannon of some of the powers that speakers of the day possessed. But when a Democrat brought up a motion to vacate, Cannon easily retained his position.

If Republicans struggle to settle on a speaker this week, we can expect more speculation on an outsider being chosen as some sort of “white knight” to rescue Congress from itself or a coalition candidate who would get votes from both parties.

It would be historic. But don’t bet on it.