Who can replace Speaker of the House John Boehner, who announced Friday he’s quitting? Almost anyone. Maybe even you.
This isn’t a comment on the job Representative Boehner has or has not done in his role as leader of his legislative chamber. It’s meant to illustrate a little-known fact: Under the Constitution, the speaker does not have to be a member of the House. He or she doesn’t have to be an elected lawmaker or government official. The speaker can be an ordinary, private citizen.
In fact, there really are not any legal restrictions on qualifications for that office. The relevant words are from the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5: “The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers."
That’s it. Nothing about being a sitting representative. There’s not even an age limit.
Yes, this means Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas could theoretically become leader of Congress’s other chamber. He’s a big favorite of the restive House conservatives who helped make Boehner’s work life so tough.
He probably won’t, though. His support in the House Republican caucus overall isn’t broad.
In practice, the lack of qualification requirements for the speaker job has not meant much.
“Although the Constitution does not so require, the Speaker has always been a Member of the House,” notes a Congressional Research Service report on the subject.
But non-House members have received votes for speaker, and that’s a trend that seems to be growing. In 1997, two retired GOP members got one vote apiece (Newt Gingrich won with 216). In 2013, one retired member, an ex-comptroller general, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell received votes (Boehner won, with 220).
In 2015, Mr. Powell got a vote again, as did Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. No Cruz votes, though. Boehner was reelected – for the last time, it turns out.
The fact that the Constitution does not lay out speaker requirements is a function of the fact that the Founding Fathers left the House a lot of flexibility to shape the office in all ways.
“Beyond naming the position, the Constitution does not elaborate on the duties or responsibilities of the office,” points out congressional scholar Ilona Nickles.
They’ve evolved over the years, to the point where the speaker is expected to strike a difficult balancing act: He or she is the presiding officer of the House, and thus represents the interests of all members; and the individual is the leader of the majority party, and thus an important partisan actor.
Past speakers were autocrats. In the early 1920s, Speaker Joseph Cannon (R) simply blocked political opponents from speaking on the House floor. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore.
“They have been restrained by the reality that forging party unity among different factions within their own caucus, and seeking consensus among independent-minded members in both parties, is a complex and difficult process,” writes Ms. Nickles.
It’s so difficult, in fact, that it helped convince the current speaker it’s time to move on.