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The Sausage Factory

A Twist on the Race for Speaker

Nancy Pelosi has secured enough support to lead the Democratic Caucus, but she hasn’t quite met the threshold to be elected Speaker of the U.S. House. Congressional Institute President Mark Strand posits an interesting theory in an article written for Real Clear Policy. The piece is headlined, “Deadlock for Speaker? Try Looking Outside the Chamber.”

He suggests that a Speaker who is not a Member of the House could institute significant reforms to fix congressional dysfunction. From the piece:

The speaker’s role would change from a partisan leader to a referee on the House floor — mostly enforcing parliamentary procedures and the rules and precedents of the House. … The Democrat majority would still control the agenda. The difference is that they would manage control through the committee process rather than through the less transparent Rules Committee, which is sometimes referred to as “the Speaker’s Committee.” Since most bipartisan work occurs at the committee level, the odds are that a committee chair would anticipate potential floor amendments and address those issues in committee.

Among the reforms a non-partisan, non-Member Speaker could achieve would be for more lawmakers to participate in the legislative process by eliminating much of the politics that results in gridlock. Strand writes that the Speaker would be incentivized to promote open discussion, which would have several interesting results. From the piece:

Members would be transformed from observers back into real legislators. Public interest in policy issues would rise as the House chamber becomes less predictable, adding pressure on the Senate to take action on House-passed legislation.

While 203 Democratic Members and Members-elect voted for Pelosi, she needs to secure 218 votes when the U.S. House convenes in January. Strand spoke with a Vox reporter, explaining how Pelosi might get around the 218-vote rule. From the article:

There are different vote thresholds Pelosi will have to meet during the caucus elections and the January floor vote in order to become speaker. On Wednesday, she just needs a simple majority to be nominated, and the vote will either be by voice vote or secret ballot. But during the public floor vote, Pelosi needs to hit the magical 218 number in order to be elected.

As Strand noted, there are ways to work around getting 218 votes on the floor. A House speaker can be elected as long as they win a majority of members who are voting on the floor that day. … For instance, if a number of Republicans are absent on January 3, Pelosi’s vote threshold would be lowered. That’s how former House Speaker John Boehner was reelected with 216 votes in 2015 as he faced a wall of conservative opposition from the House Freedom Caucus. …

This certainly is an option for Pelosi, who is facing 16 members who have written a letter saying they won’t vote for her (a few more are in opposition but are not on the letter). If Cox wins in California, Democrats will have flipped 40 seats, widening Pelosi’s margin. Still, if the vote is looking close, some have talked about the possibility of Pelosi cutting a deal with McCarthy to have some Republicans be absent.

Still, if Pelosi can’t manage to get the votes she needs to be Speaker, Strand writes in his Real Clear Policy piece that Article I, section 2 of the Constitution does allow for his suggestion.

Click here to read Strand’s piece in Real Clear Policy.

Click here to read the Vox article.

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