Just the Facts

Five Facts on the Motion to Vacate

By Emma Petasis
June 20, 2018 | Blog

The “motion to vacate the chair” is an obscure legislative tool that allows any House member to demand a no-confidence vote of the speaker by the full House.  The mere threat of a vote puts incredible amounts of pressure on the speaker and gives disproportionate power to the ideological fringes of the House.  Because of this, The Speaker Project includes a proposal to “Vacate the Motion to Vacate”.  Here are five facts you should know.

The motion to vacate the chair originated in Jefferson’s Manual, not the Constitution

 The manual was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1801 during his time as vice president and was formally adopted by the House in 1837. In the book Jefferson states, “a Speaker may be removed at the will of the House, and a Speaker pro tempore appointed.”

A motion to vacate comes in two forms: a privileged motion and a non-privileged motion

When a privileged motion is filed, the motion is subject to an immediate vote. If successful, lawmakers would then need to act quickly to find a new speaker who could gain support from the majority.  Conversely, a non-privileged motion is referred to the House Rules Committee, where the chairman can decide to ignore the proposal altogether. The power of the non-privileged form lies in its ability to pressure a speaker to step down, as opposed to facing a potentially damaging and humiliating vote.

The last time the motion to vacate was introduced in the House was in 2015, but it did not come to a vote

On July 28, 2015, Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) filed a resolution declaring the office of the speaker “to be vacant.” Because Rep. Meadows filed a non-privileged motion, it did not immediately trigger a vote on the removal of then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). But many observers believe Meadows’ move speeded Boehner’s departure from the House. On September 25, 2015 Speaker Boehner, a 30-year veteran of the House, announced his retirement.

The only time the House voted on a motion to vacate was in 1910

Fed up with Speaker Joseph Cannon’s (R-IL) broad control of the House, George Norris (R-NE) and the progressive wing of the Republican party staged a revolt.  Before filing a motion to vacate the chair, Norris proposed a resolution to remove the speaker’s ability to both serve on and select the members of the House Rules Committee.  This resolution, which passed the House 191-152, stripped Cannon of much of his power.  Adding insult to injury, Norris then filed a motion to vacate, but “there was no stomach to humiliate him further,” and the motion failed 155-192.  Cannon remained as speaker for one more year before losing his re-election bid to the House.

In recent years, lawmakers have considered repealing or abolishing the motion to vacate

Following Speaker Boehner’s exit in 2015, several congressional Republicans endeavored to revise or abolish the measure.  Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), proposed ending the privileged status of the motion to vacate in September 2016, arguing it had the power to “throw the entire conference into chaos and distract Congress from doing its job.” However, these efforts were hindered by the House Freedom Caucus, which persuaded Speaker Paul Ryan to defer this matter to the next speaker of the House.


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