Attempting to oust the Speaker of the House offers short-term nothing for long-term discomfort

Reports emerged yesterday of a plan among House Freedom Caucus (HFC) members to oust Speaker Pelosi via a “motion to vacate the chair.” This motion has been a more frequent political tool recently. In 2015, the HFC used it against Speaker Boehner and threatened to do so again against Speaker Ryan in 2018 as a discharge petition to extend Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) gained steam in the House. 

After these somewhat wanton attempts, the House Problem Solvers Caucus proposed reforms to the motion, making it more difficult for rank-and-file members to move to vacate the chair on their own, which Pelosi—likely joyfully—agreed to. Now, in order for the motion to rise to privilege, House rules require that the Minority Leader himself must offer it. Accordingly, the HFC is currently lobbying Minority Leader McCarthy (R-Calif.) to take up their fight. 

The effort rests on a couple of assumptions. First, Republicans likely believe Pelosi’s support is tenuous among House Democrats. Several moderate Democrats didn’t vote for Pelosi for Speaker because of ideological distance or previous campaign pledges. With COVID-19 negotiations at a standstill, anxious moderates have urged action, offering everything from profanity-laced opinions at private caucus meetings to a compromise bill cosponsored with Republican moderates. To some, this may seem like a good time to drive a wedge in the House Democratic coalition by splitting vulnerable moderates and the rest of the Democratic caucus, or by forcing them to back Pelosi on the record.

However, there are several reasons to question the utility of this tactic just before an election. First, the House will not actually consider the motion. Instead, Democrats would move to table (kill) it, making the affair a more procedural matter. Procedural votes are less visible and traceable than substantive ones. So, while Pelosi’s support may not be ironclad, protecting her from a right-wing attack on a procedural motion designed to embarrass the party will not be difficult for leadership. 

Forced votes to impeach President Trump in the 115th and early 116th Congresses suffered similar fates. Majorities easily tabled the motions, limiting their effect to brief headlines quickly washed away by the incessant churn of the media cycle. Outside of the most hardcore Republican constituencies, a motion to vacate is unlikely to break through an even denser election-media landscape saturated with polls, presidential campaigning, tweets, townhalls and, soon, debates. In light of all this, there simply isn’t that much to gain.

On the other hand, it offers plenty of downside. The last time a Minority Leader attempted to undermine the Speaker, they lost their ability to nominate members to committees. And while such draconian retribution is unlikely in the present Congress, Minority Leader McCarthy has plenty to lose. Speakers consult with minority leaders on the House schedule, major omnibus packages, reauthorizations and other significant legislation. A supermajority of legislation that eventually becomes law still enjoys bipartisan support at initial passage. The influence the minority has on some of the contours of legislation could therefore be at risk. Moreover, plenty of partisan and bipartisan activity in the House is orchestrated in majority and minority offices, with more communication and cooperation than is typically reported. Backing a failed procedural strategy meant to embarrass the Speaker risks the minority’s influence in these parts of the process.

Some Republicans may feel there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. But that is undoubtedly the perspective of a partisan member already shut out of the “rooms where it happens.” Real influence is often quieter than the performative partisanship that is more routinely on public display. Walking the line between showboating and quiet—but real—influence requires the discipline to prudently ignore partisan red-meat precisely in cases like these.