Just the Facts

Five Facts on the Most Recent Use of the Motion to Vacate

By Emma Petasis
June 26, 2018 | Blog

Last week our Just The Facts blog took a look at the motion to vacate, a little-known legislative maneuver that allows a single House member to call a vote of no-confidence on the speaker of the House.  The Speaker Project calls for eliminating or significantly modifying the use of this tactic, which many observers blame for the early retirement of both Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Here are five facts that show why the tactic should be eliminated or significantly modified.

John Boehner was a member of the House of Representatives for nearly 25 years and served as the 53rd speaker of the House from January 2011 to October 2015

Former Speaker Boehner was first elected to represent Ohio’s 8th Congressional District in 1990.  Over the next 25 years he developed a reputation as a staunch social conservative and as a champion of pro-business and small-government policies.   Before assuming the speakership, Boehner held many leadership roles in Congress, including House Majority and House Minority Leader.

The motion to vacate is an obscure legislative tool that allows any House member to demand a vote of no-confidence of the speaker by the full House

The main issue with the motion to vacate is that as long as it exists a small faction in the House can use it as a tool to threaten the speaker and destabilize the House of Representatives. In recent years, small groups such as the conservative Freedom Caucus, which has about 30 members, are able to effectively derail any form of legislation that they don’t like—even if there is support in the rest of the House. The Speaker Project aims to remove this “career- killing” measure and to disempower the extremes on both sides who often make bipartisan cooperation impossible.

On July 28, 2015 House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) filed a non-privileged motion to vacate against Speaker Boehner

Since Rep. Meadows was first elected to the House in 2012, he and Speaker Boehner had often been at odds over a wide variety of issues.  However, Rep. Meadows’ unprecedented move caught GOP leadership off-guard.  It is reported that Rep. Meadows had not even approached Republican leadership about a meeting to convey his grievances.  Yet, despite the aggressive move, Meadows did not go as far as he could have.  While a motion to vacate is typically considered a privileged resolution—which would require a vote within 48 hours—Meadows filed a non-privileged motion, which is first referred to the House Rules Committee.  This meant that House rules did not require a vote to be taken immediately, thus giving both sides time to talk.

Rep. Meadows claimed that the intent of his motion was “about trying to have a conversation about making this place [Congress] work”

In the resolution Meadows stated that Speaker Boehner tried to “consolidate power and centralize decision-making, bypassing the majority of the 435 members of Congress and the people they represent.”  Paramount among Meadows’ concerns was ensuring that no taxpayer dollars be used to fund Planned Parenthood as the House prepared to vote on a new spending bill.  However, Democrats had stated this would not be acceptable to them, and with a Democrat in the White House and the potential of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, Speaker Boehner knew that Rep. Meadows’ demands were not feasible.

On September 25, 2015, John Boehner announced his resignation—before the motion to vacate could be voted on 

Speaker Boehner had originally intended to announce his retirement on his birthday in November.  However, faced with the impending no-confidence vote in the House, where he would have inevitably had to rely on Democratic support—something that would have undermined his standing in the Republican Party—he decided to accelerate his departure.  On September 25, he announced his retirement, simply stating, “I decided today is the day I’m going to do this, simple as that.”

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