On January 3rd, the new 113th Congress will convene for its first day of business. The first action in the House will be electing a Speaker, the chamber’s presiding officer. The vote is conducted by a public roll-call, where each individual member goes on record with their choice. As such, it’s a system designed to reward those already entrenched in power. Conducting the election by secret ballot, however, would preserve and strengthen the democratic foundations of the “people’s House.”
The secret ballot has been a hallmark of democratic governance since its earliest days. It allows an individual to vote their conscience without fear of reprisal or retribution. It’s a sacrosanct principle in the election of officials at every level of our government. It should equally apply to the elections of those who would preside over our democratic institutions.
The Speaker exercises considerable control over the House. Apart from deciding which bills come to the floor, the Speaker can also dictate almost every other aspect of a Member’s life on the Hill. The Speaker can control specific committees on which a member serves and even the specific physical offices they are allotted.
Requiring a public roll-call for the election of Speaker, then, virtually guarantees that the majority party’s incumbent leader retains the position. Publicly opposing one’s party leader could make it virtually impossible to fully serve the interests of one’s constituents. A member could be stripped of committee assignments most relevant to his constituents or find it impossible to move legislation to the floor for a vote.
Because the Speaker wields so much power within the House, it’s incumbent on the institution to ensure that the position is filled in the most democratic manner. The process, which only happens every two years, should not reward entrenched power, but serve as a check on it.
Congressional sources have told Breitbart News that, early on the 3rd, some members will propose a resolution requiring a secret ballot to elect the House Speaker. The motion would be adopted by a simple majority–217 votes, in this case, because of a vacancy.
It would be the single most important vote a member casts in the next Congress. It goes far beyond the minutiae of specific government policy and reveals how our Representatives view a foundational principle of democracy. Were a Representative to vote to deny themselves a private vote for whom should preside over their chamber, it would signal that they are weak before entrenched power. It should be the single factor determining whether a Member should be challenged in a primary, for both parties.
I am agnostic on who should be the next Speaker. But, I am adamant that it should be a vote made without fear of punishment or a thirst for reward. The House must be governed by that most foundational tool of democracy: the secret ballot.