7 min read

Imagining a non-partisan House speaker

Electing a speaker doesn’t have to be this way. Just look at the United Kingdom.
Imagining a non-partisan House speaker
Wouldn’t Patrick McHenry look great in jabot and cuffs? (Photo of Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the British House speaker, by Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, October 25, 2023. The 2024 elections are 377 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

House Republicans are the closest they have been to electing a new speaker since Kevin McCarthy was ousted 22 days ago.

Yesterday was a whirlwind. The day began with the House GOP electing House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN) as their third post-McCarthy speaker nominee. On the first ballot, House Republican Conference Vice Chair Mike Johnson (R-LA) received a paltry 34 votes, putting him in a distant second place.

But the day ended with Emmer vanquished and Johnson ascendant. In total, Emmer lasted just four hours as the GOP nominee before withdrawing, his path to 217 votes blocked by a Truth Social post. Johnson rushed to fill his place; desperate to put the chaos behind them, most House Republicans have rallied behind the relatively unknown lawmaker and are expected to elect him speaker later today.

After House Republicans picked Johnson as their new nominee — their fourth in three weeks, and second in one day — they hauled reporters in for a press conference. For the first time in weeks, GOP lawmakers looked positively jubilant: chanting, clapping, cheering. The light at the end of the tunnel was in sight.

“Democracy is messy sometimes,” Johnson declared, “but it is our system. This conference that you see, this House Republican majority, is united.”

But after three weeks of a legislative standstill, should this be the system we use to elect House speakers? Is there another model of the speakership we could consider in order to avoid a repeat of this month’s chaos?

As a matter of fact, there is. And all we need to do is look across the pond to find it.

As I wrote yesterday, the House speaker in our system “is expected to serve a lot of roles at once: vote-counter, negotiator, wrangler, policy architect, procedural wizard, fundraising juggernaut, campaign surrogate (and, often, bogeyman), and second in the presidential line of succession.”

This amalgamation of roles is a product of the fact that the speaker is the servant of two masters, as we have seen these past three weeks. They are both a party leader, answerable to the majority party (which is why they need a majority of the majority party to be nominated) — as well as a constitutional officer, responsible to the whole House (which is why they need a majority of the entire chamber to be elected).

Like so much else in our political system, the House speakership owes its origins to the United Kingdom. The speaker of the British House of Commons — their equivalent to our House of Representatives — was also originally envisioned as an interlocutor between two higher powers: in their case, Parliament and the monarch. That’s how the job got its name: the speaker was supposed to be a mouthpiece communicating Parliament’s wishes to the King or Queen. (As you can imagine, this was occasionally a dangerous job. In the early years after the position was established in 1377, several speakers were imprisoned or executed by unhappy monarchs.)

Importantly, though, as ideological factions began to form, the House of Commons did not want its presiding officer to be accountable to a political party as well.

A strong tradition emerged in England — and continues to this day — of an impartial speaker, who exists so outside the party system that they resign their membership in a political party the day they are elected to the role.

Of course, British politics comes with its own share of chaos. But the House of Commons speakership has remained a relatively stable — and non-partisan — institution for several centuries. In fact, when the speaker stands for re-election in their home constituency, they normally do so unopposed, as the opposition party declines to field a rival candidate out of respect for the apolitical speaker. (In contrast, running against an American House speaker can be a fundraising bonanza, even though they often hail from a safe district.)

The House of Commons speaker is still generally a member of the majority party — but not always: in 1992, a Conservative government elevated a Labor lawmaker to the role. The speaker’s partisan credentials are less important because they are generally an institutionalist, not a fire-breather; someone steeped in procedure, not the party machine. In our system, think Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), the chairman of the Rules Committee, not Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the Freedom Caucus co-founder.

Contrary to the unseemly brawling we have seen recently — with House Republicans clawing over each other for the speakership — the House of Commons speaker is supposed to be so unambitious that they are literally “dragged to the chair” after being elected, ceremonially resisting the chamber’s advances:

Especially after the last few weeks, the logic here shouldn’t be hard to grok.

The majority party in the House of Commons still has a leader — but that person is different from the individual who presides over the chamber, recognizes members to speak, and makes certain legislative decisions about what receives a vote. In our system, we have meshed those two roles, resulting in the current morass.

Twice now — in January and for most of October — the U.S. House has been shut down indefinitely by the indecision of the majority party, preventing the chamber from considering crucial pieces of legislation while war rages in Israel and Ukraine and a government shutdown looms.

With a non-partisan speaker, the majority party might still be scrambling to pick a leader. But that would be happening in the background, behind the scenes. In the meantime, the full chamber could still pass important legislation, since the presence of a presiding officer would not be subject to the whims of one party or the other. The speakership would be taken away as a partisan football, no longer liable to sparking a state of legislative paralysis.

Granted, the British system can lead to paralysis by other means, like a hung parliament or a vote of no confidence. But the U.S. wouldn’t need to adopt other elements of the parliamentary system to make this work. We could simply give the partisan duties of the speaker to the House majority leader, and ensure that a non-partisan figurehead — trusted by both sides of the aisle — is sitting in the presiding chair, able to put emergency legislation to a vote even if the majority party is in tatters.

Considering how much they borrowed from the British, is that how the Founding Fathers intended for the U.S. speakership to operate in the first place?

We don’t really know. To the Framers, the House speakership appears to have been something of an afterthought, mentioned only once in the Constitution (“The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers”) and ignored completely in the Federalist Papers.

But most sources suggest that the first U.S. House speaker, Frederick Muhlenberg, played more of an “impartial moderator” role, a la the House of Commons. According to “Fighting for the Speakership,” a seminal book on the office’s evolution, Muhlenberg was “selected through an informal process that lacked any trappings of formal party politics.” Like the British speaker, his role was more procedural: presiding over the chamber, representing the House on ceremonial occasions, never participating in debates, and only voting in the case of a tie.

A contemporary poem published in a New York newspaper seems to confirm his low profile: Fred Augustus, God bless his red nose and fat Head / Has little more influence than a Speaker of lead.

It’s a matter of some dispute when exactly the House speakership evolved into the partisan-procedural juggernaut it is today. Most scholars peg Henry Clay, who held the role in the 1810s and 1820s, as the first House speaker who simultaneously led the chamber and exerted influence over the majority party, the first link in a chain that goes to Joe Cannon, and then Sam Rayburn, and then Nancy Pelosi, as the speakership grew progressively more powerful.

At least one historian has dissented from this “Clay-centric narrative,” arguing that the role became enmeshed in party politics even earlier. But regardless, it does appear that Muhlenberg and his immediate successors acted more like their British counterparts — overseeing the House, but not the House majority.

Muhlenberg may not have been given a palace residence like the House of Commons speaker, but his lodgings still reflected the universal esteem in which his colleagues held him. While all other lawmakers had to double up when living in boarding houses near the Capitol, the first speaker was given a room all to himself.

The House GOP appears to be zeroing in on a resolution to the Great Speaker Crisis of 2023.

But it would be foolish to think this can’t happen again. The same fundamental problems that felled Kevin McCarthy — the lack of Republican unity; the disputes over government funding and Ukraine aid — will haunt Mike Johnson. A precedent has now been set that, in a small majority, a handful of members can oust the speaker and the minority party will refuse to come to their rescue.

Some other small faction will try the same thing — be it next week, or next month, or next year. Untethering the two contradictory roles of the House speaker — and returning the job to how it was seemingly envisioned — would ensure that such dissension in the majority ranks would do nothing to prevent the House from performing essential legislative business.

More news to know.

Here’s an intro to Mike Johnson, the likely next House speaker. A House member since 2017, he played a lead role in the efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Two dozen American military personnel were injured by drone attacks at U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria last week. The attacks were carried out by Iranian proxy groups, according to the Defense Department.

41 states accused Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, of knowingly harming youth mental health in a new lawsuit.

In the year after the Dobbs decision, legal abortions increased slightly in the U.S., despite 21 states adding new abortion restrictions.

One of Donald Trump’s former lawyers testified against him yesterday, while another pleaded guilty to state charges in Georgia. His former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, is reportedly cooperating with Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation.

The federal deficit ran higher than $2 trillion last fiscal year, double what it was the year before.

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