The House of Representatives is, quite simply, a mess. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) plans to get the heck out of Dodge by the end of the month. Speaker-in-Waiting Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) abruptly withdrew his name from consideration after he angered many fellow Republicans by suggesting that a committee ostensibly formed to investigate the Benghazi attack was actually formed to undermine Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The House Freedom Caucus, a faction of hardline Republicans who are likely to push for aggressive tactics such as a government shutdown, endorsed an obscure lawmaker named Daniel Webster who has only served in the House since 2011, to be the next speaker.
It is possible that there is no one in America who can win an absolute majority of House members votes, the amount that is necessary to become the next speaker.
A prolonged period when the House is unable to agree on a new speaker is not unprecedented, although it has not happened for a very long time. Speaker Nathaniel Prentice Banks, who served from 1855–1857, was elected on the 133rd ballot, in part because disagreements over slavery prevented a majority of the House from coalescing around a single candidate. In 1859, similar disagreements eventually led the House to chose a freshman congressman, William Pennington, as House speaker.
Under ordinary circumstances, the House is highly constrained in its ability to act before a speaker is elected. The current uncertainty over who will be the next speaker, however, is unlike the impasses that eventually ended with Banks and Pennington’s elections because it comes midway through the current Congress’s two year term — and it also comes after the House already elected John Boehner as its speaker.
In an email, George Washington University political science Professor Sarah Binder explains that this enables Boehner himself to prevent chaos if his soon-to-be-former colleagues cannot agree on a replacement. Boehner, she notes, could “simply stay on as Speaker until the balloting is resolved.” At least one of Boehner’s allies in Congress says that the sitting speaker is likely to do this if necessary.
But what if Boehner refuses to serve through a drawn out process to choose his successor — of if he is overthrown in an intraparty coup? Binder points to a provision of the House rules that govern vacancies in the speakership after a speaker has already been elected as a likely solution. “As soon as practicable after the election of the Speaker and whenever appropriate thereafter, the Speaker shall deliver to the Clerk a list of Members,” this provision provides. The rules add that “in the case of a vacancy in the Office of the Speaker,” the first name on this list becomes Speaker pro tempore and “may exercise such authorities of the Office of Speaker as may be necessary and appropriate to that end.”
A spokesperson for the House Clerk confirmed to ThinkProgress that Speaker Boehner has delivered such a list of names, and an entry in the Congressional Record also confirms that Boehner delivered the list on January 6. The Clerk’s office, however, would not reveal who is in line to become speaker pro tempore should the speakership become vacant. A request to the speaker’s office was not returned as of this writing.
Ironically, however, the most likely name to appear at the top of this list is the man who just withdrew his name from consideration for the speakership. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, after all, remains the House majority leader and Boehner’s top deputy.
The good news for the nation’s economy, however, is that there will at least be someone who will take on the speaker’s power to bring bills to the floor in the event that the House cannot select someone to fill a vacant speakership. The speaker pro tempore, should their services become necessary, is likely to have a very difficult first few weeks on the job. Legislation raising the debt ceiling is necessary by early November to prevent the United States from defaulting on its debts, and the government shuts down after December 11 unless Congress enacts new funding.