In History, House Speaker Has Never Been Removed At Midterm

There's been a lot of loose talk about how House Speaker John Boehner could lose his job if he doesn't stay on the right side his Tea Party caucus. But House rules actually make it very difficult to get rid of a speaker in the middle of a congressional term.

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There's been a lot of speculation about whether John Boehner could lose his job as speaker of the House if he doesn't placate the Republican's vocal Tea Party faction. So far, there's been no attempt to oust Boehner and as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, it would actually be quite hard to kick him out of the job in the middle of a congressional term.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: John Boehner's tan might last year-round, but the control he wields over House Republicans is much less predictable. He began this current term in Congress with his speakership under threat, when a band of Tea Partiers voted against his re-election as their caucus leader. But in the end, it was Boehner at the helm when the House opened this January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Every two years, at this hour, the Constitution brings a new order to this House. And it's an interlude for reflection, a glimpse of old truths.

CHANG: And one of those old truths is that maintaining cohesion within a splintered party can be a miserable job. Boehner has been criticized by both Democrats and Republicans that he's been overly accommodating to the demands of a small conservative faction. Those critics claim his fear of losing the speakership is what shut the government down. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the House can easily pass the Senate spending bill with no limits on the Affordable Care Act, but he told CNN Boehner needs more courage to let that happen.

SEN. HARRY REID: I think that the speaker has to be more concerned about our country than he is about his job.

CHANG: But the truth is, Boehner need not worry about any forceful ouster from his job if the past is any indication.

SARAH BINDER: No speaker has been voted out midstream in the history of the House.

CHANG: Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution says the closest any speaker came to getting yanked out midterm was Republican Joseph Cannon more than a century ago. He was known as Czar Cannon for his autocratic way of running the House. Progressive Republicans and Democrats, chafing under his control, stripped Cannon of some committee powers. So to preempt a more serious attack, Cannon proposed to remove himself from office.

BINDER: So Speaker Cannon himself goes, he's on the floor, and he offers the motion, and it is a motion to essentially declare the speakership empty.

CHANG: Binder says it was a way to calm the loyalty of his fellow Republicans.

BINDER: Right? Just as we look at House Republican moderates today and say, will they go with the Democrats, right - will they break with the Speaker? There's this enormous level of loyalty that comes from being a member of a party even with ideological differences.

CHANG: Ultimately, Cannon's motion never passed. Under today's House rules, any member can propose a resolution to remove the speaker, and that proposal can get to the floor pretty quickly. All it needs to pass is a simple majority. But that's where things get complicated. The other party has a large block of votes too, and how they'll vote is unpredictable. In any event, speakers under fire haven't waited for that to happen. Usually they resign first, like Jim Wright in 1989, when he was under an ethics investigation over speaking fees, or Newt Gingrich in 1998. After getting blamed for a government shutdown and the loss of Republican seats in the House, Gingrich knew his influence was waning. He decided he neither wanted to be speaker nor a rank-and-file member of Congress.

NEWT GINGRICH: And I think there comes a time when you've got to step out and let a new team take over, let a new team try to do the best they can.

CHANG: But what would it take for Boehner to actually resign? Ron Peters of the University of Oklahoma says it would likely be some formal action - not on the floor but within the House Republican caucus.

RON PETERS: And they would proceed by a motion of no confidence. And if that were to carry by a majority of Republicans, then Speaker Boehner would in all likelihood choose to resign the speakership.

CHANG: But it's hard to think of who can fill the void. And besides, Steve Smith of Washington University asks, who would want the job anyway under those conditions?

STEVE SMITH: Well, if there was an effective challenge to Boehner, it would be because the party is deeply divided about how to proceed. In fact, the turmoil would probably reflect so poorly on the party that it would threaten its own majority status in the next elections.

CHANG: And in that case, Smith says, the new speaker wouldn't have the job very long anyway. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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