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There's lots of questions currently about how the House elects its Speaker and what happens when it can't, and it's generally accepted that the House can't actually do anything else until a Speaker is chosen - the US Code (in Title 2 Chapter 2 § 25) explicitly forbids taking up any other business:

At the first session of Congress after every general election of Representatives, the oath of office shall be administered by any Member of the House of Representatives to the Speaker; and by the Speaker to all the Members and Delegates present, and to the Clerk, previous to entering on any other business;

However, there are obviously things that it can still do, such as voting to adjourn for the day.

What, specifically, is the House able to do? I expect that the answer is mostly going to be procedural motions, but what are the details, or where is it spelled out?
Some specifics:

  • Can they vote to recess, or are they and the Senate stuck in session?
  • Is there any kind of notice or priority event that they could switch to? (Someone suggested in a comment that the notice of the Senate passing a bill might qualify.)
  • How can they change the rules to the vote for Speaker if there aren't any rules adopted yet?
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  • Does this answer your question? Is there a time limit to elect the Speaker of the House of Representatives?
    – Joe W
    Jan 5, 2023 at 18:08
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    @JoeW - Not that I see, and I wrote the accepted answer on that question. As one example, it doesn't even touch on how they're able to adjourn for the day, rather than being locked into the chamber like a papal conclave
    – Bobson
    Jan 5, 2023 at 18:13
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    @doneal24 how can they do that when they're not even sworn in and can't do business? Jan 5, 2023 at 20:19
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    @robertbristow-johnson Swearing in only after the Speaker is elected is tradition. It is not rooted in either House rules or law. Hind's Precedents, Section 221, page 138 describes the circumstances of setting a plurality vote.
    – doneal24
    Jan 5, 2023 at 20:28
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    Concerning How can they change the rules to the vote for Speaker if there aren't any rules adopted yet?, the rules of the previous Congress are in effect until changed. For example, the voting for Speaker in the 118th House is conducted under the rules of the 117th House. The new rules, as part of organizing a new House, are by adoption and amendment. The Clerk, Secretary, Sergeant-at-Arms, etc., of the previous House, also remain until replaced.
    – Rick Smith
    Jan 5, 2023 at 21:04

1 Answer 1

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The specific restriction, as cited, is previous to entering on any other business. Parliamentary procedure (in general, this isn't specific to the House) distinguishes between business (the decisions you are making) and procedure (the way in which you make those decisions).

As a quick rule of thumb, the stuff that appears on an agenda is the "business". That's more expansive than it may seem though: for example, while forming committees is procedural, it's a procedure that you execute as part of disposing of business. So if no-one can raise a question on Foo, the Foo committee cannot be formed in response to consider it. (Also, without seated members there probably isn't anyone that could be put on the Foo committee).

So: the house can take and act on procedural motions. They can probably do something like go into a committee of the whole and talk amongst themselves, and they can raise and consider points of order, etc. They could possibly even hear witness testimony! However, while there are many, many delightful opportunities for churn and talk, the House can't actually DO anything until they have elected a speaker.

An amusing aside: It appears that hearing the chaplain's prayer is itself usually considered business. It's unclear what happens if he prays anyway. I guess his prayer isn't enforceable?

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  • That makes a lot of sense. Does this mean it's just traditional that the House adopting a new set of rules for the new Congress comes after choosing a Speaker, since that seems procedural? Or is creating a new set (even if it's just copied) considered business, while changing the existing set is procedure?
    – Bobson
    Jan 5, 2023 at 23:22
  • @Bobson I think you could change whatever procedures, but only within the context of electing a speaker? I said "the house" can do stuff, but the speaker election is more like a special committee of the whole, so the scope of its procedural changes can only be that committee (vaguely analogous to an OS inside a hypervisor). Outside that and until there is a speaker to seat members, the house actually cannot usefully do anything: the roll sits at zero, any vote would be 0 aye, 0 no, and so would be lost.
    – fectin
    Jan 6, 2023 at 1:33
  • @Bobson changing procedures would also require a strict majority, even in committee, so it is unlikely that a minority that is unwilling to go along with the plurality would support a change that lets the plurality rule.
    – fectin
    Jan 6, 2023 at 1:35
  • That has happened twice - both times the majority voted to do three more rounds of voting then go to a plurality. But yeah, I wouldn't expect the current majority to do anything like that any time soon.
    – Bobson
    Jan 6, 2023 at 2:28

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