Who Wants to be Speaker?

If recent history is any indication, taking the speakership shortens political careers

By Kellyn Brown

After Rep. John Boehner said he would resign, and his presumptive replacement Rep. Kevin McCarthy said he was out of the running, it seemed no one wanted to be speaker of the House. It turns out, many do. In fact, with a wide-open race and a House in turmoil, volunteers have lined up to serve as second in line to the presidency.

Those considering a bid for speakership include Montana Congressman and Whitefish native Ryan Zinke. In a statement released by his office last week, he said, “Our phones are ringing off the hook because I think America wants something different. I haven’t decided, but what I have decided is that Congress better do our duty and defend our values of this country.”

It’s unclear who is prodding Zinke to run, but with a handful of veteran lawmakers either on the fence or rejecting the idea outright, perhaps the freshman lawmaker has a chance. He’s certainly not the most unorthodox candidate, especially since the speaker of the House is not required to be a member of the House. It’s true. Anyone can be speaker, even you.

The U.S. Constitution only states, “The House of Representatives shall (choose) their Speaker and other Officers.” There’s no rule requiring him or her to be an elected member of Congress, although all of them have been members.

Consequently, with no clear frontrunner (especially since the next presumptive nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is reluctant to take the job), names of non-members have surfaced.

Sen. Tom Cotton from Arkansas endorsed former Vice President Dick Cheney for the job, telling Politico, “I think experience really counts in a matter like this. I think House leadership experience really matters. And as you know the speaker doesn’t have to be a member of the House: So therefore, Vice President Cheney for speaker.” For Cheney’s part, he had endorsed McCarthy before he withdrew from consideration.

Another non-member discussed as Boehner’s possible replacement is former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who said he is open to the idea in an interview with Fox News Radio. But, he added, “I don’t think it will happen because it’s almost impossible for an outsider to be able to lead the House.” Just in case, though, he’s “prepared” and has “been talking with a number of members.”

Gingrich, like Boehner, resigned from the post. On a conference call in 1998 announcing his decision to several Republicans, Gingrich said, “I’m willing to lead, but I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.” He left a party under duress, with several of his colleagues trying to oust him.

He was followed by Dennis Hastert, who resigned from Congress after the GOP lost its majority in the House in 2006 and was recently charged with lying to federal investigators in a hush-money case, and then Boehner, who took the speakership from Nancy Pelosi when the GOP reclaimed the House in 2010. At a press conference announcing his resignation, Boehner said, “Prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution.”

And now who? Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been mentioned. Current Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida have already declared that they’re running.

Zinke would be a long shot. A congressman for less than a year, he would be the first freshman elected speaker since 1860, according to the Wall Street Journal.

What’s more, he probably should consider whether he wants the job. If recent history is any indication, taking the speakership shortens political careers.