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The Spirit of ’76

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The overriding question that looms before the next House of Representatives is how to handle the speaker’s claim to absolute power to deny recognition to a member. That claim is based upon the language in Rule 5, Section 24: “There shall be no appeal from the speaker’s recognition…” However, this language is qualified by a succeeding clause: “…but the speaker shall be guided by rules and usage in priority of entertaining motions from the floor.”

What are the “rules and usages” when it comes to removing the speaker? The claim of absolute power is offset by the recognition in the House Rules that there are privileges that belong to the House. If the speaker has the absolute authority to deny recognition to members desiring to exercise that privilege, then the grant of privilege in the rules is meaningless.

The current rules do not make explicit provision for a motion to vacate the chair, although the authority for such a motion is implicit in House rules.

Rule 5, Section 35 reads:

QUESTIONS OF PRIVILEGE DEFINED. Questions of privilege shall be
(1) those affecting the rights of the House collectively, its safety and dignity, and the integrity of its proceedings; and
(2) those affecting the rights, reputation, and conduct of members individually, in their representative capacity only.

The collective right of the House to remove the speaker is the issue.

Rule 14, Section 1 reads:

WHEN THE RULES ARE SILENT. If the rules are silent on any question of order or parliamentary practice, the Rules of the House of Representative of the United States Congress, and its practice as reflected in published precedents, and Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, shall be considered as authority.

One such precedent, 6 Cannon 35, reads, “A proposition declaring the Office of Speaker vacant presents a question of the privilege of the House.”

These rules and precedents provide ample authority that the members of the House have the collective privilege and power to remove the speaker. But Tom Craddick is not going to abide by them.

One idea that is being circulated is a rule that would stipulate that if 76 (or more) members were to present the chief clerk of the House with a signed statement that they no longer support the speaker, the chair would be declared vacant. As much as I disagree with the speaker’s claim to have absolute authority, this method of removing him seems to be too easy. Moreover, it has the potential to paralyze the House. Let’s say that Tom Craddick is reelected speaker by a narrow margin. Committee appointments come out, and the insurgents pick up a few allies who are disappointed by their assignments. A letter with the appropriate number of signatures is presented to the clerk, Craddick is deposed, and one of the insurgents is elected speaker. Craddick takes his seat among the membership and immediately begins collecting signatures to declare the chair vacant. Such a rule would encourage a perpetual speaker’s race. Whatever the rule is, the process ought to take place in broad daylight, on the floor of the House.

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