Will The Motion To Vacate Disrupt The House?
How it actually works, historically
One concession that has received much attention is the so-called motion to vacate. H. Res. 5 reinstates the ability of a single lawmaker to force a vote on removing the Speaker by filing a motion – or privileged resolution - to vacate the chair. Democrats raised the number of lawmakers required to force a vote to vacate the chair in 2019. The rules package for the 116th Congress (H. Res. 6) stipulated that a motion to vacate the Office of Speaker required the support of “a party caucus or conference.” That is, a majority of Democrats or Republicans were needed to force a vote to remove the Speaker.
McCarthy proposed lowering the required number of lawmakers from a majority of either party to five lawmakers in the majority party. But his concession was not enough to win over conservatives opposed to his speakership. McCarthy eventually relented and agreed to reinstate the pre-2019 motion-to-vacate rule when he realized he could not become Speaker without making the concession.
According to reports, the pre-2019 motion-to-vacate rule will significantly impact how the House operates moving forward. For example, the Washington Post described McCarthy’s initial offer as empowering five Republicans “to thwart McCarthy’s (or anyone else’s) speakership, not just this week, but at any point in the future.” And one lawmaker worried that reinstating the pre-2019 motion to vacate rule will force Congress into a “gridlock nightmare for the next two years.” And the New York Times described the new rule as “an easy ouster for the speaker.”
Yet the history of the motion to vacate suggests that the pre-2019 version will likely have little impact on how the House operates moving forward.
The motion to vacate dates to the 1790s. It first appeared in Thomas Jefferson’s, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice. Jefferson based his manual on “general parliamentary law,” the Constitution, the rules of the state legislatures, “and where these are silent…the rules of Parliament.” In it, he noted that “a Speaker may be removed at the will of the House, and a Speaker pro tempore appointed.” The House formally adopted Jefferson’s manual – including its motion to vacate– in 1837.
A single lawmaker could force a vote on removing the Speaker until 2019, when Democrats changed the rule to make it harder for lawmakers to use. Yet the House voted only once to remove the Speaker during this period. In 1910, lawmakers voted not to remove Speaker Joe Cannon, R-Ill. Lawmakers threatened to force a vote on removing the Speaker using the motion to vacate in 1997 and 2015. But the House did not vote on removing the Speaker in either instance.
“Whirlwind.” “Shitshow.” “Weird.” At times, last week’s history-making votes felt more like a slog through purgatory than a victory lap over the long-awaited firing of Nancy Pelosi. The work was so all-consuming that some staffers even say they had C-SPAN-infused dreams and nightmares when they were able to catch a few hours’ worth of sleep.
The drama also collided with the onset of Dry January, making for some tough choices. One congressman debated with me about whether he earned a mulligan after a particularly long day of voting. On the first day, when it became clear that the impasse wouldn’t be solved, Congress adjourned — to the swearing-in parties that had been planned for weeks.
For much of the negotiations, the elephant in the room was the lack of elephants in the room. House Republicans had a smaller than expected conference, giving each individual member leverage that they would have lacked had the GOP picked up the historic majority that many predicted.
One source close to the negotiations among McCarthy’s opponents said that the stage was actually set months ago: “This started with the rules package that [the House Freedom Caucus] introduced in the summer.” But it was only after Republicans gained the same slim five-seat majority that Democrats had for two years that the talks really heat up.
“Leadership didn’t really want to engage until after the elections,” one closely involved staffer told me. “They didn’t think they would need to worry about [the House Freedom Caucus]; they thought they were going to get a forty-seat majority or whatever. Talks began in earnest after that, but it’s unclear if they realized how much trouble McCarthy was in until right before the vote.”
Going into the week’s votes, a small handful of Republican members made it clear that they were opposed to McCarthy — but the initial rounds had up to twenty congressmen voting against the eventual speaker. One of the players in the anti-McCarthy camp said that this came down to individual members’ preferences. “Some people were genuinely undecided until right before; others preferred to keep it close to the vest for various reasons. But those who came out first had to take a lot of the heat and anger before everyone else did.”
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