How Do They Pick the Speaker of the House? What Happens If They Don’t?

If you’ve been following the House of Representatives recently, you’re probably aware that GOP leader Kevin McCarthy is having… a particularly bad time securing the role of Speaker of the House. Specifically, as of the first week of 2023, he’s lost nine rounds of voting. This all might seem ridiculously slow, especially if you assumed the majority party in the House of Representatives just sticks their party leader in there and calls it a day. So… how do they pick the Speaker of the House?

What Does the Speaker Even Do?

The Speaker’s role is codified in the US Constitution, specifically Article I, Section 2, Clause 5. As defined, the Speaker of the House is both the political and parliamentary leader of the House of Representatives. Technically, the role is not a partisan one, but as America’s party system became both more defined and separate after the American Civil War, the Speaker’s powers have since expanded. 

Today, the modern Speaker basically “runs” the House of Representatives. The most important thing the Speaker does is set the voting agenda of the House. This means a Speaker can, in theory, prevent anything from getting off the ground at all. There’s an informal rule in the House called the Hastert Rule that illustrates this pretty well. It holds that the Speaker will not allow a floor vote on any given bell unless the majority of the majority party (whom the Speaker has traditionally been a part of) approves of it. If the Speaker has the approval of the majority party (and the majority and minority party don’t ever agree on anything), the Speaker can basically prevent a vote on anything the minority party wants. 

This is quite unfortunate as the two American parties become more polarized; the role of the Speaker theoretically protects the interests of the minority party. You know, so they’re still relevant. 

How Is the Speaker Chosen?

No surprise, the Speaker of the House is voted in. Not by you, though. The Speaker is elected every two years, coinciding with the beginning of a new Congress following the general election. If a Speaker dies, resigns, or is otherwise removed from office, another is selected as soon as possible. 

Candidates for the Speaker role are typically just selected from the House’s more senior memories, and nominated by their respective parties. Representatives can technically vote for whoever they want (the Constitution does not state that the Speaker must be an incumbent), though this isn’t very common because of how powerful the Speaker can be within the House. Since the Speaker doesn’t even have to be an incumbent, the Speaker of the House doesn’t even have to be a Representative in the House. An interesting quirk, but you’re probably not surprised to hear that this has never happened. 

The reason why there’s such gridlock with Kevin McCarthy in 2023 is because the Speaker needs to get a majority from the House’s members. If nobody gets a majority, they just vote again. Repeat until you get a majority—which is why there’s so much posturing around whether or not any given Representative will actually vote for who their party wants them to vote for. Out of 127 Speaker elections, there have only been 15 times where the House has had to keep re-voting. 

What Happens If They Don’t Pick Someone?

So the Speaker of the House is… a pretty important role to put it lightly. Not only do they run the House of Representatives, they’re also third in line in the presidential line of succession. Quick run-down on that, if the sitting US President cannot do their job (or they are removed from office through something like impeachment or resignation), the Vice President becomes the acting president. If something happens to the Vice President, then the acting president is the Speaker of the House. 

Further Reading: What Is the Presidential Line of Succession?

For starters, each new Congress has to pass a new set of rules for the House. Here’s the thing, the vote needs someone to run it and that someone is the Speaker. If there is no House Rules package passed by January 13th, nothing can really get done—starting with staff not getting paid. House members and members-elect are fine though, they’ll still get paid (but of course). Without a Speaker, the committees within the House will not function properly, which is another way of saying nothing gets done… period. Actually, this is all a long way of saying “people don’t get paid and also the House can’t really do anything substantial until they pick a Speaker.”

See if you know your Speakers of the House here.