When I first heard the rumblings that Donald Trump could become the next speaker of the House, I rolled my eyes.
What fresh insanity, right? Like most people, I believed the speaker of the House had to be an elected member of Congress.
Think back to the speakers you’ve heard of. Not just the most recent ones, but also Sam Rayburn of Texas. Tip O’Neill, the Boston pol who dominated the House of Representatives when I was coming of age. Newt Gingrich, who changed the course of conservative American politics. James K. Polk! Henry Clay!
Every single one of them, and every single one of their predecessors going back to Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania in 1789, was a member of the House. So pardon my ignorance for thinking it was a requirement.
In fact, there is no law or constitutional mandate that limits the speakership to an elected representative. There isn’t even a House rule about it. It’s just a norm, and we know what those are worth these days.
To become speaker, all a person needs to do is win an absolute majority of votes cast by the elected members of the House. That person could be the D.C. dog catcher or some wild-eyed madman proclaiming the end of days outside the Capitol or a child chosen at random from a nearby fourth-grade classroom.
Or, worse yet, it could be Donald Trump.
The first I heard of this awful idea was back in June, when it was floated by Trump sycophant Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). He suggested that if the GOP were to win a majority in the House in the midterms — as it is expected to do — its members could then vote Trump in as their leader.
“Can you just imagine Nancy Pelosi having to hand that gavel to Donald J. Trump?” Gaetz crowed in a speech in June.
A Trump spokesman dismissed the idea, saying the former president had “zero desire” to be speaker.
But then in November, former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows suggested it again. “As you know, you don’t have to be an elected member of Congress to be speaker,” he added on Trump confidant Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.
Then Bannon chimed in, suggesting the ex-president could “come in [as speaker] for 100 days to sort things out” and then go back to running for president in 2024. By “sort things out,” he apparently meant beginning impeachment proceedings against President Biden.
Two weeks ago, Gaetz announced that he’d spoken to Trump about the speakership but refused to offer any details. Other right-wing pundits and pols have come out in favor of the idea.
None of this should be taken too seriously. These guys are provocateurs. Then again, given the state of politics in the U.S. right now, can even lunatic propositions be ruled out?
Some experts have opined that the speaker rumors were just a way of trolling House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who is in line to become speaker if the GOP takes control.
They suggest the idea is being pushed by the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus because of dissatisfaction with McCarthy. Even though he’s a reliable Trump bootlicker, apparently McCarthy is not enough of a wacko for Reps. Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and their ilk.
Trump, unsurprisingly, has failed to rule out taking charge of the House. “Well, I’ve heard the talk and it’s getting more and more,” he said. He added that he had “a good relationship with Kevin and hopefully we will do everything traditionally.”
I’d consider that weak reassurance if I were McCarthy.
The big question in my mind is what’s in it for Trump? He’d get some headlines, yeah. And some more disruption, plus an opportunity to press Nancy Pelosi’s face into the mud.
But it’s hardly his sort of job. “Effective speakers do a lot of glad-handing, do favors, deal with minor issues like ‘Fix the carpet in my office’ — and other grunt work,” says Matthew Green, a professor of political science at Catholic University who studies Congress. “You need to be loyal to the institution and to the members of the institution.”
Not that the job isn’t powerful. Speakers have a role in appointing committee members and chairs, decide points of order, recognize who gets to speak on the floor and have significant control over what measures move forward. They can dole out or withhold favors. They play a leading role in negotiations with the president and they’re usually leader of the majority party caucus. They’re also third in line of presidential succession, after the vice president.
It would be a disaster if Trump were given the gavel. Because, first, he shouldn’t be in any position of power whatsoever. But also because Congress should be overseen by an elected official, accountable to voters — not by an unelected, irresponsible demagogue with only his own interests at heart.
One Democrat recently introduced a bill to bar nonmembers of Congress from becoming speaker. But it strikes me as unlikely to become law.
There’s also the possibility that if Trump became speaker, it could be challenged in court. But there’s no guarantee the court would take such a highly political case.
So should we prepare ourselves for Speaker Trump? Well, probably not, but when it comes to our ex-president, you can’t rule out any bit of chicanery or malevolence. Trump and his acolytes could be trolling for the heck of it, or it could be a sinister plot, like the equally unimaginable but all too real effort to delegitimize and reverse the 2020 election.
I didn’t take that too seriously either at first, and boy was I wrong.