Ask an Expert: Replacing a House Speaker

Is an ousted Speaker supposed to resign from office? When does the new leadership come into place? Evanston, IL

The new leadership assumes office, along with all Members of Congress, when they take the oath of office on the opening day of the new Congress, now scheduled for January 3, 2011. The new leaders will be chosen within their party caucuses, by secret ballot – and those internal party choices for the nominations to the office of Speaker, Majorty Leader, Minority Leader, Majority Whip, Minority Whip, and conference/caucus chairs are expected to take place in mid-November, 2010.

There is no requirement that a Speaker, whose party has just lost the majority in the House, resign from office  – but they usually do. It is difficult for any official to shrink back to a greatly reduced role in the House after having served as its top officer.

The reasons are easy to understand. Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), who served as Speaker from 1999-2007, said when he resigned from the House, that he felt like a retired coach watching from the stands while others led his former team. He just didn’t want to stick around and watch.

But the bottom line is that any Speaker is also a duly elected Member of the House. Nancy Pelosi will no longer be Speaker if Republicans take the majority in the new Congress, but she will still be the elected representative from San Francisco, California. Only the voters of the 8th congressional district can remove her from that position. If Democrats do not retain a House majority , then assuming her re-election on November 2nd, it will be her decision whether or not to resign from the House entirely, or to stay in the House in a reduced role.

The Democratic Caucus of the House will have internal elections in mid-November to choose their leaders for the 112th Congress. If Democrats are in the minority, Nancy Pelosi could run for the office of Minority Leader in the new Congress. However, her colleagues in the Democratic party might not want to have her keep any leadership role. After all, Speakers are judged on their ability to lead the majority party and expand its numbers, not shrink them. They are also judged on their ability to get the party’s legislative agenda enacted and on their ability to be an effective voice for the party’s policy goals in communicating with the public and the press. Rep. Pelosi herself may choose not to seek any leadership position or her fellow Democrats may make it clear that they will not nominate her for the post.

Here’s what other recent Speakers have done:

  • Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), following his party’s loss of majority status in the 2006 election, declined to run for any party leadership post when the new Congress convened in 2007. He remained a representative from the 14th congressional district of Illinois for eleven months, and then resigned from the House entirely.
  • Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), facing an open rebellion from his Republican colleagues and a shortage of votes within the party to retain his leadership post, quit the Speakership on November 6, 1998, just days after his party lost 5 seats from their majority status in that mid-term election. A gain of seats was expected as had been the pattern for over 60 years for any party that didn’t hold the White House. Rep. Gingrich had just been re-elected from his congressional district in Georgia, but he also resigned his House seat and left Congress.
  • Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) served as Speaker of the House from 1989 to 1995. He was not re-elected to the House by the voters of the 5th district of Washington and therefore lost both his congressional seat and the Speakership.
  • Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX) resigned from the Speakership in response to an ethics scandal on June 6, 1989 and subsequently resigned from the House 3 weeks later on June 30, 1989.

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