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My understanding is that the current rules of the U.S. House of Representatives allow any member of the House - including members of the minority party - to offer a motion to vacate the office of Speaker, which effectively forces a vote by the full House on the issue (either directly, or by voting on various potential blocking mechanisms for the formal vote) within two days. And yet, I've never heard of a member of the minority party ever introducing such a motion, nor any discussion of a serious possibility of that happening.

  1. Am I correct that members of the minority party can offer a motion to vacate the offer of Speaker and force a floor vote?
  2. If so, why doesn't this happen frequently? I understand that the vast majority of the time, the members of the majority would all vote against the motion, so it would fail. But even if it fails, there seem to me to be many situations in which members of the majority party would have an incentive to offer such a motion anyway, e.g.:
  • As a form of temporary filibuster, in order to delay other votes and otherwise slow down House processes
  • As a symbolic protest vote, after the Speaker does something that a minority member finds particularly egregious
  • For political reasons when the Speaker is unpopular, in order to force a politically difficult vote on members of majority party about whether to effectively re-elect an unpopular Speaker
  • As an actual play to remove the Speaker, when there seems to be widespread unhappiness with the Speaker among the majority members

Is it just norms that prevent members of the minority party from introducing these motions all the time?

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    I am pretty sure that it has happened on the one or two occasions when party control has shifted mid-term.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 23, 2023 at 8:21

2 Answers 2

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Vacate motions are not a common strategy for a number of reasons:

  1. A successful motion requires a simple majority of those present, but since the speaker is (in practice) chosen by the majority party, it's difficult to achieve an opposing majority, particularly if the motion comes from a minority party member
  2. The speaker controls all sorts of practical matters — office space, committee assignments, priorities on resolutions and bills — and generally also acts as a major fundraiser for conference campaigns. A failed vacate motion can have serious consequences for the member who raises it
  3. Motions to vacate from a member of the speaker's party signal infighting and a lack of party unity, which invariably works to the advantage of the minority party, both in-term and during the next elections. It has a tinge of political suicide to it

Generally speaking, a responsible congressperson wouldn't undertake a vacate motion without both making sure the vote would succeed and that they (or a particular colleague) had the support needed to be elected as the new speaker. That would usually mean that the current speaker did something sufficiently bad that the majority which had already elected him/her once was offended enough to rescind their votes. But the peculiar situation in the current House — a narrow majority, a small group of which have a wildly different agenda and (shall we say) a certain lack of foresight and perspective — means that reasonable congresspeople don't have the clout they used to.

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    Respectfully, I don't think that any of these points address my question. To your point #1: as I discuss in my question, motions to vacate can still be politically (or ocassionally even substantively) useful even if they have no chance of passing. And your points #2 and #3 do not apply to the minority party, which is what my question was about. Oct 23, 2023 at 20:24
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    Yes, this seems to be answering the question "why doesn't the majority party table motions to vacate more often?", not the question asked.
    – terdon
    Oct 24, 2023 at 14:25
  • @VeryTinyBrain: The problem is that your question seems to be asking something like: "Why don't more congresspeople file vacate motions that have no chance of success, disrupt the activity of Congress, upset US citizens, and aggravate the third most powerful political figure in the nation?" The only real answer is that most congresspeople aren't sufficiently stupid, petty, arrogant, and nihilistic to go there without an awfully good reason. But I can't really say that in an answer, can I? Oct 24, 2023 at 14:38
  • @TedWrigley Members of Congress file other symbolic/protest bills and resolutions all the time. These have all the same effects that you listed. Oct 27, 2023 at 3:14
  • @VeryTinyBrain: No they don't. a vacate motion is privileged, meaning it supersedes all other House business and must be brought to a floor vote. Symbolic/protest bills generally die without much fuss; they are presented and dismissed procedurally. At minimum a vacate motion would cost the House a day of business, but more likely it would consume an entire week (what with discussions and caucus maneuvering and such). Oct 27, 2023 at 5:04
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In regard to the comment by ohwilleke, the House Speaker's chair is vacated every 2 years without any sort of motion to vacate because a new Congress begins when members of the House are sworn in during January of the year following the House elections held every 2 years in each even-numbered year. House members serve two-year terms which coincide with the two-year duration of a Congress, which is why you may have heard references to the 118th Congress — the current one that began in 2023. Each Congress has two sessions, the first session convened when those individuals who won the previous year's November election in their congressional district are sworn in during January, and the second session is similarly convened in January of the following even-numbered year.

Members of the House remain the same from the first session to the second session of a Congress with rare exceptions, such as when Rep. George Santos was expelled last year, or when a member of the House resigns for whatever reason before their two-year term ends. Thus, half the elections for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives coincide with our presidential elections held every four years, and the other half are part of the mid-terms. And the individual elected Speaker of the House at the beginning of a new Congress serves in that post throughout that Congress unless they choose to resign or their chair's vacated (the latter of which has been an extremely rare occurrence until this Congress when Republicans became the majority in the House). But a new speaker is elected at the start of each Congress, although it often ends up being the same individual who held that position in the prior Congress if members of their party's caucus still support them. That's why Rep. Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House for many years because her party maintained a majority in the House during each Congress in which she served, and its members voted to reelect her speaker. It wasn't like she kept that position automatically.

All this is why what ohwilleke commented is incorrect. The office of Speaker of the House is automatically vacated at the end of each two-year Congress because that's how it works. There's no such thing as the speakership being vacated deliberately through a motion to vacate if the mid-terms change which party has a majority in the House because it happens automatically. Hypothetically, members of the House when there's a Democratic majority could elect a Republican speaker or vice versa, although I've never heard of that happening because why would they?

And to finish this discussion so everyone understands the situation in both chambers of Congress, 1/3 of the members of the U.S Senate are elected every two years, because their terms last six years and those terms are staggered. This still means all U.S. senators are elected in November of even-numbered years at the same time as a presidential election or a mid-term election. I think this is a little hard to wrap your brain around at first, but it's not hard to understand if you consider the fact that there are no federal elections elections held in odd-numbered years, except occasionally in the case of runoffs or special elections.

I hope that I've addressed some rather complicated matters in a manner that's understandable by everyone who's reading this. And I'd like to note that I do not mean to talk down to anyone who may already have known all this. But it's been my experience in talking to people over many decades — as I'm 64 years old and will celebrate my 65th birthday in September — that many Americans don't understand how the U.S. Congress works, and knowing about things like those I've discussed in this comment is a good start. Thanks for listening!

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    – Community Bot
    Feb 14 at 7:46
  • The use of vacated is in the legal sense of "canceled" or "annulled"; thus, specific action is required to vacate the Office of Speaker. In the normal course, the term of the Speaker (as with other members) expires at the end of that meeting of Congress.
    – Rick Smith
    Feb 14 at 18:03
  • You misunderstood my comment. To be clear, I wasn't talking about a change as a result of a mid-term election. I was talking about a change in partisan control of the house between elections due to vacancies, or due to members of Congress changing their party affiliation between elections. These events are very rare, but do happen. Something similar happened in the PA House within the last year or so.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 14 at 20:57

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