Your burning speakership questions answered: A viewer’s guide to the House chaos


As Kevin McCarthy muddles through the fourth day of his anarchic battle for the House speakership, it remains as unclear as ever if the California Republican can muster the votes to prevail.

A bloc of 20 far-right members have remained completely immovable through additional speaker ballots over several days. McCarthy still doesn’t have the votes, but neither does anyone else.

As the House showed repeatedly, lawmakers can keep taking votes on the floor, or they can adjourn to negotiate privately. But here are some answers to other common questions that have cropped up about where the House could go from here.

These have been informed by the work of Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University; the Congressional Research Service and the House historian.

Are these concessions made by McCarthy enough to win the gavel?

That’s the million-dollar question. The list of empowering changes that McCarthy has floated to conservatives includes allowing only one member to force a vote on a “motion to vacate,” effectively ousting the speaker; votes on term limits; and letting more conservative Freedom Caucus members on the powerful House Rules Committee, on top of several other offers.

But some members of the anti-McCarthy bloc, namely Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Bob Good (R-Va.), have indicated there’s no circumstance under which they’d vote for McCarthy. The Californian may peel off a considerable number of the rebels with his latest olive branch, but the math still looks challenging for him.

Do we have any sense of how long this is going to go on?

Speculation abounds, but not really! McCarthy certainly isn’t setting any time frame for resolving the impasse. Asked by reporters about the fact that this speaker election has now become the longest since the 19th century, McCarthy noted that he’s also given the longest floor speech on record surrounding this process: “Apparently, I like to make history.” The House Democratic Whip’s office has asked members to stick around in Washington until a speaker is elected.

Do they have to vote every day?

Most simplistically, no, they do not. While the House is set to reconvene at noon, members-elect — technically speaking, in fact, all members are “members-elect” until a speaker is chosen — could adjourn again before taking another speaker vote.

However, with the current impasse, the House GOP’s options are limited. They can either vote for the speaker or, like Tuesday, a lawmaker could move to adjourn if Republicans want more time to negotiate in private. Such a motion requires a majority to pass, so Democrats could be a factor in such a scenario. Lawmakers would also have to set a specific time to reconvene on the floor.

Are there relevant historical parallels to this situation?

Every election and circumstance is different, but 1923 is probably the most analogous. In that instance, a group of House Republicans sought progressive procedural concessions from the sitting speaker, Frederick Gillett.

How the century-old floor fight played out could be instructive for McCarthy’s battle. The chamber voted four times on the first day and then four times on the second day without electing anyone. A deal was then struck, and the chamber elected Gillett speaker on the first ballot of day three. That was the last speaker election that required multiple ballots to decide the victor.

What was the longest speaker fight in history?

It’ll take McCarthy a while to even get close to the longest fight in history, which occurred in 1855. That fight, which took place in the years leading up to the Civil War, initially attracted more than 20 candidates and took two months to resolve. Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts eventually prevailed in the contest, which went on for an astounding 133 ballots.

Was that a one-time thing?

Actually, no. Fights over the speakership, particularly in the 19th century, often took many ballots to resolve. It took more than 10 ballots each for the elections of Speakers John Taylor (22 ballots); Philip Barbour (12 ballots); John Bell (10 ballots); Robert Hunter (11 ballots); Howell Cobb (63 ballots); William Pennington (44 ballots) and Banks, among others.

Is there any way to elect a speaker without a majority?

In short, yes. The chamber has extremely wide latitude in determining how it wants to elect the speaker, as long as a majority of members-elect approves such a move.

The House opted in both 1849 and 1855 to adopt the use of plurality voting to decide the speakership. They structured the election to first allow for three standard votes. Then, if no one succeeded in attaining a majority, a fourth one to be decisive at a plurality threshold.

Given the divided House and the need for a majority to support it, the likelihood of this seems pretty small. But the option does exist.

Do they have to keep calling names one-by-one?

In a similar vein, again, the House can structure its vote how it pleases with majority buy-in. Prior Congresses have opted for election by secret ballot (prior to 1839) or resolution.

Lawmakers opted to use resolutions to elect Speakers William Bankhead (1936) and Sam Rayburn (1940) upon the deaths of prior speakers in the middle of the term. Both of those resolutions passed by voice vote.

Why is the clerk the star of this show?

Clerk of the House Cheryl Johnson and her reading clerks are critical players in the speaker election process, as they repeatedly read out the names of every House member-elect.

During the period before the House elects a speaker and adopts rules for the term, the clerk of the House has the authority to rule on motions and recognize members-elect to speak on the floor. A majority of lawmakers can, however, appeal and overturn clerk rulings.

Johnson was sworn in by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi but clerks generally strive to operate on a nonpartisan basis.

What’s the shortest tenure of a speaker?

One day, but it’s a bit of a special case. Speaker Theodore Pomeroy of New York held the gavel for a single day after his predecessor, Schuyler Colfax, resigned to become vice president. Pomeroy helped close out the final day of the 40th Congress and then retired.

Should he eventually emerge with the gavel, McCarthy won’t face those circumstances but will continue to confront a threat from his right flank, which has insisted on a procedural tool that would allow any one member to force a vote to oust the sitting speaker.

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