It may come as a surprise to many Americans to learn that the Constitution does not require the House speaker to be a member of the House. The Constitution provides for election of a speaker but does not require House membership to serve in that position. That’s because the office was not conceived as a partisan agent, but rather as one serving the whole House and, in that role, the entire nation. The Constitution anticipated a leader respected across the broadest possible spectrum of the American people, much as George Washington had presided over the convention that drafted our governing charter in 1787.
The time has come to exercise that constitutional flexibility and choose a House speaker from outside the House.
Though this route might seem extreme or fanciful, it makes sense for the incoming 118th Congress. The severe partisan divisions within the next House of Representatives make it impossible to choose a member who could genuinely serve the general interest of the nation. The slim Republican majority has produced a caucus so fractious that dozens of its members opposed the election of Representative Kevin McCarthy as Republican leader in the House. At least five have pledged publicly to oppose his campaign for speakership.
Even if Mr. McCarthy can corral those opponents and muster the required majority in the full House to choose him as speaker — that vote is to take place on Tuesday — he will be captive to a G.O.P. fringe similar to the one that hampered the speakerships of Paul Ryan and John Boehner. Moreover, Mr. McCarthy’s animus and hostility to cooperating with Democrats doom the prospect of meaningful bipartisanship.
The incoming Democratic House minority of course lacks the votes to elect one of its own as speaker. The Democrats could, however, offer motions to open the possibility of selecting a speaker capable of working across the aisle. Nominating an experienced, respected Republican from outside the House could trigger a contested ballot leading to a speaker in the mold of the original constitutional conception.
There have been such contested elections, sometimes producing speakers with multiparty support. Most of those contests took place in the 19th century, with one of them running to 133 ballots. (A contest goes to multiple ballots if no one gets a majority the first time.) In the 20th century it took nine ballots to elect Frederick Gillett as speaker of the 68th Congress.
Several Republicans are already expecting multiple ballots for the upcoming vote, and Don Bacon of Nebraska has expressed readiness to work with Democrats to elect a more moderate speaker.
Casting a vote for someone outside the House to serve as speaker is not unprecedented. In recent decades, votes for speaker have gone to Colin Powell and Joe Biden.
One may ask why it is better to look outside the House rather than find a sitting Republican who would be a good alternative to Mr. McCarthy as speaker. In part, that’s because the most likely fallback for Republicans is Steve Scalise, who is, like Mr. McCarthy, a Trump loyalist who would be subject to the same pressures that would distort a McCarthy speakership. With the decimation of the moderate House Republicans — only two who favored impeaching Donald Trump are returning and most newcomers are captive to reactionary constituencies — there appears to be no moderate candidate who has the standing to vault into the role and lead effectively.
The sad fact is that the Republican caucus is dominated by campaigns and commitments that gravely encumber efforts to define common ground in the political center. That judgment is fortified by recognition that years of rancorous cross-aisle politics have soured so many relationships that one cannot expect a truly fresh start from within the House itself.
For this to work, two things are essential:
First, House members must nominate a plausible candidate to whom disaffected moderates in the Republican caucus can rally and whom Democrats recognize as a promising partner in building cross-party coalitions.
Second, there must be a secret ballot for speaker that would free individual members — primarily Republicans, but also some Democrats — to vote for such a candidate without fearing reprisal in a future party primary.
Falling short of their own majority, Democrats still have the power to make both of those things happen. Their new leader, Hakeem Jeffries, faces the near certainty of a grim relationship if Mr. McCarthy becomes speaker. Mr. Jeffries could identify a proven leader whose candidacy would test how many Republican members are prepared to work toward meaningful coalition building. Doing so would fortify those Republicans who seek to move the party beyond the corrosive Trump era.
Such potential nominees do exist. The list includes John Kasich, a former House Budget Committee chairman who demonstrated a capacity to shape common ground in his service as governor of Ohio. The retiring congressman Fred Upton of Michigan enjoys respect in both parties, as does the departing governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan. Mr. Jeffries will surely identify other prospects for this unique chance to reinforce the American political center. The effort would also be likely to win favor from President Biden, who knows well the dire implications of ferocious Republican opposition during the balance of his term.
A secret ballot could provide a true measure of the individual preferences of members of both parties. A motion for such a ballot might come from a member of the Republican majority — that caucus chose its leader by secret vote — but it would be a more potent signal of serious purpose if offered by the Democrats.
If there were ever an opportunity for constructive innovation within the constitutional framework, election of the next House speaker presents it.
William S. Cohen, a former secretary of defense, served in both the House and the Senate as a Republican. Alton Frye, a former congressional staff director, is the presidential senior fellow emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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