Eliminating the Motion to Vacate is a bad idea

By Joshua C. Huder

One thing I really don’t understand about recent reform proposals: Eliminating or significantly tailoring the motion to vacate. This very rare motion has received more attention recently due to its role in John Boehner’s ouster. The motion itself is straightforward. It’s the equivalent of voting the Speaker out of office. The motion to vacate can be offered by resolution as a privileged matter, forcing a vote on whether to declare the chair vacant, then instigating a new speaker election.

It has hung over the head of the last two Republican speakers, prompting a bipartisan group of members from the Problem Solvers Caucus to propose nixing it entirely. This is a bad idea for a lot of reasons.

First, it has a myriad of unintended consequences. For example, members would have no ability to get rid of bad speakers. There are legitimate reasons to vacate the chair. For example, had there been no privileged motion to vacate, Speaker Wright (D-TX), who ultimately resigned amid ethics violations, could have stayed against the wishes of the House. Other means of checking speakers are available, but if a stubborn speaker refuses to leave office, there’s no guarantee they could be removed from their position. The motion to vacate is a fundamental check on their authority. It’s really the only way rank-and-file members are guaranteed the right to debate the most important office in the chamber. Just out of sheer caution, the motion should be kept to check cases of particularly egregious behavior.

Second, eliminating the motion would stifle debate and majority will. The motion is simply a way to instigate debate and does not guarantee a speaker’s removal. It’s important to remember John Boehner resigned voluntarily. He faced opposition from a small minority of his party. Had the motion to vacate been put to a vote, a majority of the House would have voted to keep him in office. This process of debate and securing a majority vote is in line with every democratic principle of the Constitution and the House. Speaker Joe Cannon, the only speaker to face an actual vote to vacate, said in a speech immediately before the vote that to deny a House majority from choosing their speaker “is to make impossible the reflection of the wishes of the people,” and that, “under the Constitution, it is a question of the highest privilege for an actual majority of the House at any time to choose a new Speaker” (6 Cannon §35). Undercutting the principles of the House to protect leaders from politically damaging votes is bad process. It’s akin to elevating political interests over democratic values.

That brings us to the most glaring problem with this proposal: It will fix nothing. Members seeking new leadership is not an institutional problem that can be fixed procedurally. Right now, it is a Republican problem. The party has vast disagreements on some fundamental policy and strategic issues. Removing the motion to vacate won’t solve any of those issues. Handcuffing all future majorities because a party, at a moment in history, disagreed about its leadership is incredibly shortsighted. This is not the first time a majority party has split on leadership and it will not be the last.

If reformers want to democratize the House, enable robust debate, and decentralize power, they should rethink promoting this reform that undermines debate, prevents democratic decision making, and protects speakers’ power. It cuts against the thrust of the entire reform movement.

Joshua C. Huder, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.