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Here's how the House will choose John Boehner's replacement

John Boehner during the opening session of the House of Representatives in 2013.
John Boehner during the opening session of the House of Representatives in 2013.
Mark Wilson / Getty

Due to John Boehner's shocking decision to resign from Congress at the end of October, the House of Representatives will have to elect a new speaker to replace him.

So far, it's unclear how dramatic the contest will be. Despite constant rumblings of conservative dissatisfaction with Boehner's leadership, and talk of coups in January 2013 and January 2015, no challenger to him has ever gotten more than 12 votes. The early chatter among Hill reporters is that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who's philosophically quite similar to Boehner, is the clear favorite. It's not clear who will emerge as a challenger from the conservative wing, but there will likely be someone.

But the speaker election often looks quite dramatic because, unlike those for other congressional leadership positions that are voted on only by party members and in private, everyone in the House votes in public — and, to win, a candidate needs a majority of the full House.

Since the opposition party will vote for its own leader, that means that in practice, a winning speaker needs a huge supermajority from his or her own party. So even a relatively small part of the majority party can gum up the process.

How the House speaker election works

  1. All elected members of the House get to vote, and the votes are public.The members typically vote one by one, in alphabetical order by last name, in the House chamber.
  2. Members can vote for anyone. The person a House member votes for doesn't have to be officially running for speaker, or even a member of Congress (though all speakers have been). You can even vote for someone who has specifically said he or she won't serve — there's no official way for anyone to withdraw his or her name from consideration. But though it might be fun to imagine a Speaker Trump or a returning Speaker Gingrich, in practice, every speaker has been a sitting member of the House — an outsider doesn't have the institutional powers necessary to line up votes.
  3. To win, a candidate needs a majority of the votes cast. A plurality isn't enough. This means that if none of the 435 seats in the House are vacant, and if all of those members show up and vote, one candidate would need 218 votes to be elected speaker. (If some members instead choose not to vote or vote "present," fewer votes will are needed for a majority. This is what happened in January — only 408 members ended up voting, so Boehner needed 205 of those votes, and got 216.)
  4. If no one person wins a majority of votes cast, there's another round of balloting. There's no process to winnow down the number of candidates. So if nobody wins, there's simply another vote taken. And if that round doesn't result in a winner, then there's another, and another, on and on indefinitely, unless...
  5. In the past, the House has sometimes changed its rules to allow a plurality winner. In 1849, the House took weeks to choose its speaker; in 1855-'56, it took months. Vote after vote was taken, but divisions over slavery and the strength of minor parties prevented any majority winner from emerging. Finally, in both cases, the House voted to change its rules so a candidate with a mere plurality would become speaker. (In 1856, that plurality winner was elected on the 133rd ballot.)

These rules have made Boehner's leadership elections appear closer than they actually are

Before the full House takes its speaker vote, the Republican members alone will likely vote in private as to their preference, and to fill their other leadership slots. In the past, Boehner has won these votes easily, as he needed just a majority of Republicans, not of the whole House.

But for the full speaker vote, since the minority party votes for its own speaker candidate, the majority party actually needs a large supermajority of its own caucus to elect a candidate on the first ballot. That means a relatively small faction of the majority could conceivably withhold its votes and cause the frontrunner candidate to fall short.

That's what a small group of conservatives tried and failed to do in both January 2013 and January 2015. In the first contest, no one was officially challenging Boehner for Speaker, but 11 Republicans voted for various other people (including Eric Cantor, Allen West, and former Comptroller General David Walker), and a 12th voted "present." A few Democrats didn't vote for Nancy Pelosi, either. Boehner, however, picked up 220 of the 427 votes cast, a clear majority.

This January, a similar attempt was made. There were a few declared challenges by Reps. Daniel Webster (R-FL), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), and Ted Yoho (R-FL). But again, Boehner picked up 216 votes of the 408 cast for another easy majority.

In both cases, the vast majority of Republicans were on Boehner's side and unlikely to quickly abandon him. If Boehner had fallen short on the first ballot either time, it would have been embarrassing for him, and required at least one more round of voting. But there was no real danger that a Democrat would be elected speaker, since their candidate would also need a majority. Some of the conservative challengers would likely have backed down eventually, or perhaps some deal would have been reached, or both.

So it's easy for conservatives to make Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's attempt to succeed Boehner look messy. It's unclear so far, though, whether they can assemble the votes to put the outcome of the contest in serious doubt.