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Common(wealth) Knowledge #32: A House divided

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Kevin McCarthy has been elected Speaker after 15 different ballots.

Despite the 118th United States Congress taking office on January 3rd, the House of Representatives took until the early hours of January 7th to elect a Speaker. A narrow Republican majority in the House of Representatives has meant that a breakaway faction of 20 Republicans prevented Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy from being elected as Speaker for several days, with 15 rounds of voting needed before McCarthy could secure a majority. While this level of indecision is uncommon for America, with the last time more than 9 rounds of voting were held being 1860, it is even more foreign for Australians. However, by comparing how the Speakers work in the two countries, we can begin to understand why this role is so contested.

Examining the votes themselves raises the first difference between the two Speakers. During the 11th round of voting, Republican Matt Gaetz nominated former president Donald Trump to be speaker. The US Speaker is not constitutionally required to be a member of the House of Representatives, unlike in Australia. Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution says that “the House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.”

This is the only mention of the Speaker in the original text of the US Constitution. In contrast, Section 35 of the Australian Constitution says that “[t]he House of Representatives shall, before proceeding to any other business, choose a member to be the Speaker.” A “ member” refers to an elected Member of the House of Representatives. This loophole in the US Constitution means that Trump is actually able to serve as the Speaker of the House.

It has also led to the Libertarian Party calling for former Republican-turned-Libertarian senator Justin Amash to be elected as Speaker. The Green Party has not commented on this issue.


Another difference is that the Republican candidate is also their leader in the House of Representatives. Although the Speaker in any Parliament in Australia is usually from the party that controls a majority in the House of Representatives, the Speaker is expected to be impartial. This was adopted directly from the United Kingdom, where the process has gone one step further, with the major parties agreeing not to contest the Speaker’s seat at the general election, believing that this better enables the Speaker to be independent of party politics.

In the United States, the Speaker’s role in the House of Representatives is very different. The position of Speaker outranks House Majority Leader, the leader of the party with the most seats, meaning that generally the House Majority Leader seeks to ensure that they are elected as Speaker. This means that they are openly partisan, although it is unusual to see the Speaker take part in debates or vote, although as a member of the House of Representatives they are entitled to do both. It is unclear if they would possess these powers if they were not an elected member of the House of Representatives.

The Speaker’s influence in the House of Representatives usually depends on which party controls the presidency. When the two positions are held by different parties, the Speaker is the most senior member of non-presidential party, and acts as its spokesperson and congressional leader. In contrast, when they belong to the same party, the Speaker usually plays a much more subdued role.

When the Speaker and President do not belong to the same party, the Speaker can affect the operations of the presidential party in the House of Representatives by controlling which House Committees discuss which bills. If more than one committee can discuss a bill, the Speaker can choose to direct it to a committee where the presidential party’s representatives are less vocal or more likely to support the Speaker’s party.

As the Speaker also exercises a great deal of control over their own party’s committee appointments, the Speaker can use that power and their control over which committees debate which bills to limit the influence of dissident factions within their own parties. This was famously done during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century, where although the President and Speaker were both Republicans, they belonged to opposing factions. This ability is likely to come into play again in the 2023-2024 term, as MAGA Republicans come into conflict with more moderate Republicans like McCarthy.

The final big difference between the two Speakers is that it is possible for the Speaker to become the President. The 25th Amendment of the US Constitution allows the Speaker to become the President if the President and Vice-President resign, die, or are impeached. In addition, the Speaker and their counterpart in the Senate, the President pro tempore of the Senate, can declare the President is unable to discharge their powers for a period of time, on the advice of either the President or the Vice-President and a majority of the 15 senior Cabinet members.

These powers cannot be exercised by the Speaker in Australia. The Speaker cannot inherit the role of Prime Minister if the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are unable to; the Speaker can only succeed to that role if elected to it in a vote by their own party. Similarly, only the Governor-General, as the representative of the monarch, can discharge the Prime Minister from their role, as in the case of Gough Whitlam. Alternatively, the Prime Minister can temporarily appoint the Deputy Prime Minister to be Acting Prime Minister if the Prime Minister is incapacitated by illness or is otherwise unable to exercise their powers, but this power cannot be given to the Speaker, who is not a part of Cabinet.

Whichever candidate is eventually elected to become Speaker of the US House of Representatives will clash regularly with President Joe Biden, just as Nancy Pelosi clashed with Donald Trump when she was Speaker and the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. And it is likely that Republican infighting will make it onto the floor of the House of Representatives, with right-wing Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert already clashing over the Speaker election.

Stuart Jeffery is the host of Between Parkes Place and Capital Hill on 6 News. His views on personal social media pages are his & his only, and do not reflect the views of 6 News or our journalists. He abides by 6 News' editorial standards relating to fairness & accuracy. Help support unbiased journalism & keep us independent: donate just $4 a month on Patreon & receive exclusive benefits.

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