5 Fast Facts about the speaker of the House

A stalemate over electing a speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has made history. Here are five verified facts about the speaker of the House.
Credit: AP
The Capitol is seen amid cloudy skies as the House of Representatives struggles to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress with a new Republican majority, at the Capitol in Washington, early Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The speaker of the House serves as the presiding officer of the U.S. House of Representatives and is responsible for maintaining order and managing the proceedings of the chamber.

Republican lawmakers failed many times to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker of the House, following multiple rounds of voting. The last time a speaker election required two or more votes on the floor was in 1923.

Several VERIFY viewers, including Dawn and Judith, have sent questions to our team about how the speaker of the House is elected. Here are five verified fast facts about the position.

THE SOURCES

WHAT WE FOUND

1. Members of the House cannot be sworn in without a speaker.

On the opening day of a new Congress, which usually convenes at noon on Jan. 3, the House typically follows a “well-established routine,” according to a report published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). These proceedings include electing and swearing in the House speaker, swearing in members, electing and swearing in administrative officers, and adopting rules of procedure and various administrative resolutions.

“After the speaker is elected, the member with the longest continuous service administers the oath to the speaker,” according to the U.S. House of Representatives History, Art & Archives website. “The speaker, in turn, administers the oath to the rest of the members en masse.”

But if no speaker is elected, incoming House members cannot take an oath or be sworn in on the House floor, according to the U.S. Code of Law.

Incoming House members who have not taken the oath cannot vote, engage in floor proceedings, introduce new legislation or conduct other official House business until a speaker is chosen, according to a guide on procedures of the House, published by the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO).

“Until a member-elect has subscribed to the oath, he does not enjoy all the rights and prerogatives of a member of Congress,” reads the House guide.

More from VERIFY: There are no official members of the House until a speaker is sworn in

2. Even though they’re not officially sworn in, newly elected or re-elected members of the House can vote for speaker before taking their oath of office.

Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution sets a term of office of two years for all members of the U.S. House of Representatives. This means one House ends at the conclusion of each two-year Congress and a new one must be sworn in.

But the speaker is the one who swears in the new members, and this position is appointed by a vote. The members of the new House are the ones who vote, despite not being formally initiated.

Former House members who were not re-elected cannot vote for the new speaker.

Upon convening at the start of a new Congress, the House elects a speaker by roll call vote, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. Once the House is in a quorum — meaning the minimum number of members are present to proceed — the speaker nominee from each party is read aloud by the respective leaders before voting begins.

The clerk of the House, who presides over the proceedings to elect a new speaker, then appoints lawmakers from each party as tellers to tally the votes. The candidate to become speaker needs a majority of the votes from House members who are present and voting to be elected.

3. The speaker of the House does not have to be from the majority party.

The speaker of the House position doesn’t have to be held by the leader of the majority party. In fact, the speaker doesn’t even have to be a member of the House of Representatives at all. The person must only be nominated and receive a majority of votes from House members who are present.

Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution says the “House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and other officers,” but is vague on who can hold the position. However, according to House archives, the speaker position has always been held by a House member.

A guide on House procedures published by the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) says the speaker is the only House officer who “traditionally has been chosen from the sitting membership of the House.” The Constitution doesn’t limit the selection from among the current class, “but the practice has been followed invariably,” the GPO says.

During the 2023 session, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) were nominated for speaker of the House, along with McCarthy. In past years, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have received votes for House speaker.

More from VERIFY: No, the speaker of the House does not have to be from the majority party

4. A candidate must receive a majority of votes to become elected speaker. 

A candidate needs a majority of votes from House members who are present and voting to be elected as speaker. Historically, the magical number has been 218 out of the 435 members of the House.

“The long-standing practice of the House is that electing a speaker requires a numerical majority of the votes cast by members ‘for a person by name.’ This does not mean that an individual must necessarily receive a majority (currently 218) of the full membership of the House,” according to the Congressional Research Service

Many previous speakers, including outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have ascended to the position with fewer votes than 218, as some members voted present instead of calling out a name. Every lawmaker voting “present” lowers the overall tally needed to reach a majority.

5. If no candidate wins a majority, voting continues until a speaker is elected.

If no candidate receives the requisite majority of votes cast, the roll call is repeated. No restrictions are imposed on who may receive votes in the subsequent ballots.

For instance, no candidate is eliminated based on receiving the fewest votes in the floor election, and a member’s vote is not limited to individuals who received votes in previous ballots, the Congressional Research Service says.

The 2023 session is only the 15th time in history multiple roll calls were necessary to vote for speaker, according to House archives. Thirteen of those times occurred before the Civil War “when party divisions were more nebulous.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

    

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