The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is the presiding officer of the body. The office was established in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution.
The Speaker is the political and parliamentary leader of the House, as well as the presiding officer. The Speaker serves as the de facto leader of the House majority Party and the head of the administration for the House. The Constitution does not require the Speaker to be a member of the body, however all thus far have been.
There are 435 members of the U.S. House. A Speaker must normally receive 218 votes to be elected (a simple majority). Most Speakers are elected on the first ballot. There have been 14 instances in U.S. history where the Speaker’s race required multiple ballots – the last time in 1923, when Rep. Frederick Gillett, (R-MA) was elected on the ninth ballot.
The 2023 race for Speaker took a similar turn. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, (R-CA), the House minority leader the past four years failed to reach the 218 votes on 14 ballots. This after former President Trump publicly urged Republican members to unite behind McCarthy. Trump’s endorsement of McCarthy did not get him one vote on the next ballot. Ultimately, McCarthy was elected on the 15 ballot, with six Republicans voting present and McCarthy getting 216 votes, a majority of those voting.
Twenty Republican members of the House, including newly elected Rep. Josh Brecheen, (R-OK), refused to coalesce/unify behind 200 other Republicans to elect McCarthy. These hold-out members constitute the “Freedom” Caucus. It appeared McCarthy wasn’t going to be elected without their support. The 20-member Freedom Caucus demanded the threshold needed to call a vote of confidence in the Speaker be lowered to just one member (McCarthy agreed to do that). The Freedom Caucus called for lower taxes, a reduction of the national debt and a lowering of the federal budget deficit. They also have demanded seats on powerful committees. McCarthy agreed to virtually all of their demands, but in doing so angered some of the more moderate members of the Republican caucus.
First, a legislative body requires teamwork. No individual member of a 435 member body can get much accomplished. They have to work with others to accomplish anything. Collaboration, negotiation, and cooperation are necessary skills to get legislation passed. Failure to work with other members of the body will limit effectiveness of a member. Too many uncooperative team members kill a team’s goals and objectives. Effective governing requires willingness to give and take. Being obstructive is not constructive. Helen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
Second, some people will take nothing instead of something. Some people are not wired to negotiate. They consider any concession an unnecessary compromise. They are intolerant of an alternate viewpoint. Bargaining is for the feeble. They would rather lose than compromise their convictions. They are willing to accept a liberal over a moderate to prove their point.
Third, the tail wagged the dog in the Speaker race. The 20 members of the Freedom Caucus constitute just 10% of the House GOP caucus, yet they were able to exercise proportionally more power than their numbers dictate. All of their goals are worthy ones, but it remains to be seen if those goals will be accomplished, after their angering many in their own caucus.
Fortunately, Rep. McCarthy did not withdraw and a “moderate/centrist” GOP candidate for Speaker get elected with “blue dog” Democrat support. That would have created a circus in the House. Speaker McCarthy’s challenge is to “herd the cats” and move the House forward. With a single member having the ability to call for a confidence vote on the Speaker, his challenge of unifying the GOP will be formidable.
There is a fine line between negotiating and quibbling. If negotiating gets personal (and it clearly did in the Speaker’s race), both parties lose. Good negotiators are tough, but they know when to quit. For a good negotiator, it’s not all or nothing. They understand the art of the deal. Six Republicans have shown they throw the long ball on every play and don’t subscribe to incrementally moving the ball down the field.
Steve Fair can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.