03 January 2013
Crazy constitutional trivia: the Speaker of the House
After some suspense, Speaker Boehner has retained his position at the head of the House of Representatives. A feared uprising among Tea Party Republicans didn't amount to much, but it did give us a fresh lesson on the eccentricities of our founding charter. A handful of Republicans cast protest votes for candidates other than Boehner; among those getting protest votes was former Rep. West of Florida -- until his defeat last fall the House's answer to Samuel L. Jackson's character from Django Unchained. But before I could nominate anyone voting for West for Idiot of the Week, news reports reminded me that they were entirely within their rights. That's because the U.S. Constitution sets no conditions for the Speakership. Article I, Section II, Clause 5 says that "The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and Officers." While you might infer that "their Speaker" means "one of their number," constitutional scholars apparently agree that in the absence of a specific list of qualifications the House can name anyone their Speaker. You don't have to be an elected member of the House in order to be elevated to a position second in line of succession to the Presidency. Presumably you don't even have to meet the constitutional qualifications for House membership (age 25 and up, a citizen for at least 7 years and a resident of the state -- not the district -- he runs in). From the beginning, the House has acted on common sense and elected one of their own; since the rise of parties the majority party has elected one of its own. The potential for mischief is obvious, however, whether a mass movement might elect Representatives on a promise that they'll vote for some odd celebrity or if disgruntled members of both parties in a nearly-balanced House decide to join forces and seize control behind a compromise, non-partisan Speaker. How much mischief such a Speaker could do himself or herself is unclear. In any event, I hope more people had a "huh?" moment when they heard about this. It might be one occasion when people agree across party and ideological lines that the Constitution's words aren't entirely suited for its purpose.