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Rules for selecting Speaker of the House confirm Nancy Pelosi is doomed

With Democratic rats belatedly jumping off the sinking ship Speaker Pelosi, the media speculation about her future has started. While most of this chatter is of little consequence, given that she will at best be minority leader as of January 3, 2011, a clarification is in order concerning her fate if the Democrats should miraculously hold the majority after the election.

Few people understand the rules for selecting a Speaker of the House. That was true in the 1990s and it is still true today. I only know about them because I read them on November 4, 1998, in my role as Chief of Staff to then-Rep. Matt Salmon, the leader of the unnamed group who ultimately forced Speaker Newt Gingrich to step aside after the 1998 election. The rules are what gave GOP dissidents the power to block Speaker Gingrich without making Dick Gephardt Speaker, and those same rules are what would doom Speaker Pelosi even if Democrats somehow managed to hold the House narrowly in November.

The common, but erroneous, view of the rules was reflected in a Washington Examiner article Thursday:

If a second Democrat joined the speaker’s race and split the party’s vote with Pelosi, House Minority Leader John Boehner, the likely Republican candidate for speaker, would win.

Most political analysts say they believe Pelosi would never allow a three-way race to occur.

But sorry, “[m]ost political analysts,” this is just wrong. The actual House rules require, for a person to be elected Speaker, that the person receive a majority of the total votes cast for people. A plurality is NOT enough. Here is the key text from the Clerk of the House website:

To be elected, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of votes cast, which may be less than a majority of full membership of the House, because of absentees of Members voting “present.” If no candidate receives the requisite majority, the roll call is repeated until a Speaker is elected.

So to make up some numbers: if Pelosi secured 200 votes, a “moderate” Democrat secured 17, 3 Democrats hid in a Capitol restroom and did not vote, and Boehner received 215 votes, Boehner would NOT become Speaker. Since 432 votes were cast for people, a majority of that, 217, would be needed to become Speaker on that vote. In this example, it would be a deadlock and a new vote would be taken. (If this actually happened, horse-trading would occur behind the scenes and a candidate would eventually get a majority of votes cast for a person.)

The full Clerk’s explanation is worth reading:

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution states: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.” The Speaker is elected by roll call vote when each new House first convenes. Customarily, the conference of each major party nominates a candidate whose name is placed in nomination. Although the Constitution does not require the Speaker to be a member of the House, all Speakers have been members. Members normally vote for the candidate of their own party conference, but could vote for any individual, whether nominated or not. To be elected, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of votes cast, which may be less than a majority of full membership of the House, because of absentees of Members voting “present.” If no candidate receives the requisite majority, the roll call is repeated until a Speaker is elected.

This is how the New York Times played it back in 1998:

At the same time, a small band of Republicans vowed today that they would not vote to re-elect Mr. Gingrich under any circumstances, a move that, because of the Republicans’ shrunken House majority, could tie the party in knots for months.

Representative Matt Salmon, Republican of Arizona, said: ”I personally have made the decision that I cannot vote for Newt Gingrich for Speaker in January, and there are six others who have told me they feel the same way, seven people who just will not, and it takes six to deadlock the vote.” …

House Republicans are to meet on Nov. 18 to vote by secret ballot for their leaders. Whoever wins then stands for election by the full House in January. Even if Mr. Gingrich wins the secret ballot, he could be denied re-election as Speaker in January if Mr. Salmon and at least five others refuse to vote for him. Because the Republicans will control the House by only 12 seats, it would take just six votes against Mr. Gingrich to deny him a majority. If that happened, more votes would be taken until someone received a majority. …

Said one top House aide: ”He’ll get support. How much? Only his own vote-counters know. Enough for Newt to be concerned? Yes. To panic? Not yet.”

That article appeared with the morning coffee on Friday, November 6, 1998. By dinnertime, Newt had announced he would leave Congress.

Of course, while Speaker Pelosi personifies the failures of the Democrats, replacing her with a different Democratic Speaker would not fix the problem. Only ousting Democrats from control of the Congress and its Committees can begin to repair our nation’s woes. That is why they all must go. From those like Rep. Jim Marshall (D-GA) who say they voted for her even though they were against her (“Mr. Marshall actually voted for Ms. Pelosi as speaker but said he had not wanted her for the job and would not vote for her again.”), to those like Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C. who say it is safe to reelect them because she won’t run again, to those like Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.) who now promise flat-out to oppose her, to those especially sad-sack politicians like Democrat Michael Oliverio of West Virginia who sheepishly admit they’ll support her.

They must all be defeated.

And it makes one wonder if she could save a few marginal Democrats by announcing before election day that she will not seek re-election as Speaker. With her 29% approval rating in a new Gallup survey, it could only help Democrats to have her out of the way now. And it’s a useful reminder to the GOP to let voters know now that another Democrat Speaker rubber-stamping President Obama’s agenda would be no better.

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[A postscript: A lot has happened since 1998, and Speaker Gingrich has become, once again, a leading conservative voice. On most days, he impresses me with his ideas and analysis. Then every once in a while he’ll do something like loudly endorse Dinesh D’Sousa’s silly and counter-productive book about Obama (hint for D’Sousa and Gingrich: Obama is a socialist/wants a liberal elite to control the means of production; Kenya is irrelevant to that) and I’ll recall how we felt in 1998. In any event, one day many years from now, I’ll write the full story of what occurred those 72 hours in November 1998. Wild hours they were.]

[Cross-posted.]

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