Just the Facts

Time to Evaluate the Motion to Vacate

By No Labels
April 3, 2018 | Blog

Every House speaker for more than 150 years has worked under a very threatening shadow. It is called a Motion to Vacate, and it allows any member of the House to call an immediate vote on the speaker’s future as the leader of the chamber.

It has not been used often—really, just once. But the threat is always there. It holds the speaker accountable to the lawmakers that he or she leads. But it also gives those same lawmakers leverage to sway the speaker, who controls or influences everything from the flow of legislation to the seating of committee chairs. It can put massive power in the hands of a very few.

Eliminating the Motion to Vacate, or perhaps changing how it works, is an idea worth considering, and indeed it was considered as recently as 2016. The effort ultimately stalled, but it can and should be revisited when a new Congress is seated in January.

A big gun seldom fired

The Motion to Vacate is not part of the Constitution. Rather, it was crafted by Thomas Jefferson in what has come to be known as Jefferson’s Manual, a set of rules that was adopted by the House in 1837. The manual does not supercede the Constitution, but it does provide procedures that govern the chamber.

The only time that the Motion to Vacate was used in earnest was in 1910, when a group of Republicans joined with Democrats in an effort to oust Republican Speaker Joseph Cannon. The motion came to a vote on the House floor and failed, though other motions stripped Cannon of some of his power.

Thereafter, the Motion to Vacate sat unused for more than 100 years. Several lawmakers discussed using it to dethrone Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, but nothing was ever filed. Then, in 2015, Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and current head of the Freedom Caucus, filed a Motion to Vacate targeting Speaker John Boehner. A vote was never taken, but it was widely reported that the motion played a role in Boehner’s decision to resign.

Before current Speaker Paul Ryan was elected, he suggested that the Motion to Vacate be removed. But he did not push the issue, and no action was taken.


New House, new rules

The truth is that Ryan may have been right. The idea that any lawmaker can pull a switch that will halt activity in the chamber and drive the speaker to immediately play defense may be the wrong way to check power. There are almost certainly better tools—tools that cannot be used to pressure the speaker on policy. The Motion to Vacate should be a fail-safe, not a weapon.

The truth is that there are many rules changes that can make Congress more bipartisan and productive. Congressional committees could be given more power to get bipartisan bills to the floor. The rules that govern how the speaker is elected could also be changed. Rather than a simple majority of the House (218 of the 435 lawmakers), the rule could specify that 60 percent (261 of the 435) are needed. This would virtually ensure two-party cooperation.

Whatever the outcome of November’s election, it will result in a new House. That chamber should enact new rules.

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