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If I'm a US House representative and a member of the numerical minority party, and the majority party is struggling to get consensus on a candidate for House Speaker that I find particularly unpalatable, unsuitable, unproductive or even (potentially) dangerous, I'd certainly want to vote for a better candidate of that party, believing that a vote for someone in my numerical minority party has no chance of winning and so that would just be "throwing my vote away".

But apparently I'm not "seeing the big picture" and would likely be punished for thinking that way.

Wikipedia's Speaker of the United States House of Representatives; Selection includes the following:

Representatives are not restricted to voting for the candidate nominated by their party, but generally do, as the outcome of the election effectively determines which party has the majority and consequently will organize the House. As the Constitution does not explicitly state that the speaker must be an incumbent member of the House, it is permissible for representatives to vote for someone who is not a member of the House at the time, and non-members have received a few votes in various speaker elections over the past several years. Every person elected speaker, however, has been a member.

Representatives who choose to vote for someone other than their party's nominated candidate usually vote for someone else in their party or vote "present". Anyone who votes for the other party's candidate would face serious consequences, as was the case when Democrat James Traficant voted for Republican Dennis Hastert in 2001 (107th Congress). In response, the Democrats stripped him of his seniority and he lost all of his committee posts.

Question: Why would voting for a US House Speaker candidate from a numerical majority party be "taboo" and punishable if you're a member of a numerical minority party?

I use the term "numerical majority" to distinguish it from the use of the term "majority" in the block quote "...as the outcome of the election effectively determines which party has the majority and consequently will organize the House"

which seems to define "majority" as the party to which the Speaker is a member rather than something that can be determined by counting.


Context: What originally triggered my question is the current situation for the incoming US House in 2023, there seems to be some debate about a particular candidate and I'm wondering why a bunch of Democrats wouldn't just join up with a bunch of Republicans, acknowledge that the Republicans have a numerical majority and so no Democrat could win a Speaker vote and just vote together on a Republican they all feel would be the most suitable.

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    I've wondered the same myself. That said, there would have to be a significant quid pro quo if the leadership of the minority party allowed members of that party to vote for an opposing member as Speaker without punishment. That quid pro quo would be problematic as it would result in many in the majority party voting against that candidate. And then there's the never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake rule. If the Democrats do come to the rescue of some Republican candidate for Speaker, it will be done after the mistakes are made clear and it will be rather sub rosa. Dec 15, 2022 at 9:18
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    @DavidHammen Voting for the least bad speaker seems like a significant value proposition. If the Republicans have the majority and their leadership wants them all to vote for (say) Mitch McConnell, perhaps enough Republicans could be persuaded to vote with all of the Democrats for a different Republican. Dec 15, 2022 at 11:35
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    @user253751 If word got out that Democratic leadership was meeting with any one of the candidates for Speaker regarding having Democrats voting for that candidate, that most likely would spell the end of that candidates candidacy. Word would get out as Democrats most likely would need to provide at least five votes. "The only way three people can keep a secret is if two of them are dead." One of the targeted Democrats would not like the sub rosa deal (and it would have to be sub rosa) and would spill the beans. Dec 15, 2022 at 14:06
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    @hobbs: To be elected to Speaker a candidate needs a majority (not a plurality) of the House members voting.
    – GreenMatt
    Dec 15, 2022 at 21:34
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    @GreenMatt: That seems to be the answer -- that voting for the minority party candidate is just as effective at blocking the unwanted majority candidate, by denying him a majority, as voting for a "lesser of evils" candidate would be.
    – Ben Voigt
    Dec 15, 2022 at 23:31

3 Answers 3

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"Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." -- Napoleon Bonaparte (attributed)

I think that's the basic mantra here: if the opposing party is having a leadership crisis, don't wade in there and help them fix it. Letting it play out is more likely to create internal strife, legislative dysfunction, appeasement of the more radical factions, and other exploitable weaknesses within the party. Voting for the opponent still gives the opponent control, and removes pressures from their leadership selection process. You're just doing them a favor and yourself a disfavor.

It is has long been traditional for House party members to fall in line behind the in-party majority choice for leader, regardless of their actual support for that choice. This seems to just be garden variety displays of unity by a group: human tendency has been to keep dissensions in private and to present a united front publicly so as not to undermine themselves. Indeed, what may not be clear is that at the formal selection of the Speaker both parties will nominate their party's choice (and maybe a few other nominees will pop up), and voting for the opponent is a public display of disunity and lack of faith and support in your own party's leadership. In the current previous, 116th congress, the Democrat caucus even formally codified that the in-party majority choice for leader was a binding choice on the whole caucus. But there is a sense in which the last two decades—since the 105th Congress, when Newt Gingrich was under fire over ethics issues—of House speaker votes have been atypical: there have been more party members not voting for their candidate (mostly by voting "present") in both parties than is historically typical. A nice rundown of such behaviors can be found in this article, written in the lead-up to the successful bid for Pelosi's current term as Speaker.

The Gingrich era is rife with potential influences on how this plays out in the present day, as well. Gingrich was essentially the original modern Republican firebrand, who intentionally stoked political, especially partisan, strife so he could exploit it for gain. He also arguably created the Hastert rule—nothing goes to the floor for a vote unless the majority of the majority supports it, regardless of overall chamber support—which has been taken to the present day extremes where almost nothing goes to the floor for a vote unless the majority party alone has enough votes to pass it. He considered it a failure to be a leader, or even just to be the "majority party", if you needed the other party's votes for anything. Hastert himself said "If you start to rely on the minority to get the majority of your votes, then all of a sudden you’re not running the shop anymore;" similar claims have been levied when other Speakers have eschewed the Hastert rule. This has become the norm for both parties now—though not iron clad, as John Boehner (R) ignored the Hastert rule on many bills, resulting in several bills passing with well less than a majority of Republican support, and other speakers like Ryan only publicly promised to apply the rule to certain types of legislation, while never actually defying the rule on any bill during his tenure—, and amplifies the need for caucus members to fall in line when asked and to publicly support party leadership: if the party can't get enough votes from its own party, nothing is getting done, which is going to harm every party member's chances for re-election. This is something whole books and reams of Q&A's can be written about, but I'm not one of the people who knows enough to write such a book, so I'll leave these matters where they are now.

More broadly speaking, a caucus member who can't be trusted to toe the line on a simple display of public party unity is a member who has undermined the caucus's ability to trust them on other issues. The House party leadership (minority or majority) controls much of the funding its members receive for re-election efforts—and with a 2 year election cycle, House members are pretty much in re-election mode from the instant of their election; AOC in her freshman year tweets talked about how some of the first instructions she received were about soliciting donations for re-election, for example—which is a very sizeable cudgel to wield against anyone who threatens the public perception of the party's strength via unity. It's access to such sizeable funding and support machinery that tends to keep both caucuses united, and largely discourages people from switching to Independent or other third party affiliation, as well as incentivizes them to choose to abide by majority-decided caucus rules etc. Each member tries to balance what the caucus needs of them versus what they think they need to do for re-election; narrow majorities make this a very difficult task for both individual Representatives and the party, while larger majorities allow more breathing room to allow more endangered or extreme Representatives to focus on what earns them re-election (or media attention, should they not be the same thing) without sacrificing the party's ability to get things done.

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    Don't even need to go actual idea behind that quote, just the choice of words in "your enemy" is enough to summarize the point. Voting for the other side's guy is seen as bad, because the representatives don't actually work together for the good of the country, but represent their parties in an inter-party struggle for power. Which may well be an unavoidable result of how people work, but isn't exactly the ideal that one might expect from a representative democracy. (FWIW, I don't even mean the US system in particular here)
    – ilkkachu
    Dec 15, 2022 at 13:33
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    Gotta love it. The members of the majority party who don't want to vote for that candidate will shoot themselves in the foot if the minority joins with them.
    – Barmar
    Dec 15, 2022 at 16:29
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    This article implies that Republicans and Democrats are somehow enemies, rather than competing colleagues with diverging political views. If they treat each other as enemies, the country will go to ruin.
    – gerrit
    Dec 16, 2022 at 6:58
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    @gerrit Where have you been the past few decades? They've been treating each other as enemies for some time -- it's big news whenever something happens in a bipartisan way, because it's so rare.
    – Barmar
    Dec 16, 2022 at 16:57
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    @Barmar I know, and that is very, very bad. Where have I been? In Europe, currently in Germany. OTOH, I read that it's not actually rare when bills pass in a bipartisan way in the US, but that the majority of bills are uninteresting and uncontroversial and thus it's not news. What's (sadly) rare is that the two parties try to reach a common ground on an issue where they don't agree but need a (perhaps two-thirds) majority.
    – gerrit
    Dec 16, 2022 at 17:00
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The answer from zibadawa timmy provides a good explanation for general cases. However, the example cited in the block quote (James Traficant) has some special circumstances that deserve mention, especially since they (probably) contributed to how Traficant was treated. Much of the following is from the Wikipedia article about Traficant, supplemented by memory.

Traficant was elected to Congress as a Democrat after serving as sheriff of Mahoning County, OH. While serving as sheriff, he gained popularity by ignoring foreclosure orders during an economic downturn. However, he was also charged with racketeering for accepting bribes ... and won the case by claiming he was conducting a secret investigation into corruption. This increased his profile, allowing him to win the Congressional seat over a Republican incumbent in the next election.

When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, Traficant began voting with them more than his own party. This was in spite of the fact that partisanship in the House was becoming increasingly rancorous in general. In 2001, there was no competition within the Republican caucus over the office of Speaker. Thus when Traficant voted with the Republicans for Dennis Hastert to be Speaker of the House in 2001, he sent a signal that he had no interest in supporting the party he was ostensibly a member of. Additionally, he was under investigation for using campaign funds for personal purposes - for which he was convicted and expelled from Congress the following year. Democrats stripping Traficant of his committee assignments disciplined him for his votes with Republicans over the previous years as well as his vote for Hastert to be Speaker. It also sent a public signal that they were not tolerant of Traficant's corruption.

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  • This is really interesting, thank you! This suggests to me at least that the 'rule' that one should never do this might not be as iron-clad as Wikipedia suggests.
    – uhoh
    Dec 15, 2022 at 21:22
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    @uhoh: Traficant's punishment was probably harsher than what a relatively loyal party member would have received. However, I wouldn't recommend it under "normal" circumstances for an ambitious politician. Current circumstances aren't "normal", so there are rumors that Democrats may team with moderate Republicans to elect a Speaker who is less extreme than the current front runner for the job. However, IF it's true (and I doubt it, tbh) you're not likely to hear that from any participants until it actually happens.
    – GreenMatt
    Dec 15, 2022 at 21:29
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This question seems predicated on the idea that a US congressional majority party decides on its speaker in official public votes that happen on the House floor. That's not how it works.

Certainly there is such a vote. However, it would be irresponsible for party leadership to just wade into that vote before being certain how it would go.

What they do instead is get together among themselves ahead of time ("private caucus") and hash out amongst themselves who their candidate for Speaker will be. They don't have to arrive at a unanimous decision, just at someone who will get 218 votes (a majority of the US House) from their caucus alone. Then they go to the floor of the US House on its first session and make the actual vote.

At that point, you might see a few outliers vote for an alternate candidate, but there will be 218 or more for the previously agreed-upon candidate. This is when the minority party gets their votes too, and of course at this point there's nothing they can do to affect the result.

So you might ask what at this point is wrong with someone in that minority party, or perhaps one of those "protest" votes, voting for someone on the other side? Well, this is effectively a party loyalty vote. Its only value is what the story is in the news.

If you are going to publicly at this point, when the vote is about nothing other than marketing, tell the world you think the other party is better than yours, why should its leadership ever trust you with anything it doesn't have to?

The example they gave of Traficant is interesting, because he was indeed so untrustworthy a person that he ended up in jail with 10 felony convictions, including bribery, racketeering, and tax evasion.


Historical update:

The following statement was made:

However, it would be irresponsible for party leadership to just wade into that vote before being certain how it would go.

It seems this post made a major error when it assumed that the emerging leadership would not engage in behavior that would be, in its terms, "irresponsible". In fact what occurred was a messy public floor battle the likes of which hadn't been seen in a century, even with similarly close majorities.

Otherwise, it seems the process worked as predicted; a few Republicans refused to vote for their winner, but in the end enough did. It just worked out that way in public for the whole world to see, rather than in private.

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  • Thanks for your helpful answer! The question is not predicated on "just wad(ing) into that vote before being certain how it would go". Certainly minority and majority party members could coordinate (or "collude" if you're a certain individual) quietly out of the public view. It seemed to me that that would not constitute a "punishable offense" and so the Wikipedia article I've quoted in the question is probably currently insufficiently caveated.
    – uhoh
    Dec 17, 2022 at 0:08
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    @uhoh - In the spirit of the Scientific Method, I try to keep track of posts I make here with testable predictive power, to test those predictions against later events. Events on this speakership vote are still very much up in the air, but it seems clear already that I made an implicit assumption that Republican leadership would be responsible, and not "just wade into that vote before being certain how it would go.". It seems that assumption was deeply in error. Full post-mortem will be added to the post when it can be made.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 3, 2023 at 16:13
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    (insert smile emoji)
    – uhoh
    Jan 4, 2023 at 0:05

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