The most misunderstood number in American politics right now is 218. Pundits and editorial boards from left to right state it takes 218 votes to elect a new speaker of the House of Representatives.
The once-certain next speaker, Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), surprisingly quit the race to succeed Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) because he doubted his ability to get these votes from the GOP’s 247 House members. Asking Democrats to vote for him, McCarthy said wisely, isn’t a viable option.
But the premise that it takes 218 votes to win a speakership vote is wrong. There is another way for House members to elect an able Republican successor to Boehner.
The website for the House Clerk says a winning speaker candidate need only receive “an absolute majority of the votes cast.” Democrats currently intend to vote for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), now the Democratic minority leader. This is the right long exercised by the House minority in such a vote.
But why shouldn’t the Democrats instead win points from the American people by refusing to participate in the vote, thereby putting partisanship aside and let only GOP House members pick the next speaker, which will be the inevitable result sooner or later?
It can then be a win-win-win solution: The GOP gets a new speaker elected only by Republican votes; Democrats get credit for putting solving problems above partisan gamesmanship, and Americans get to hope the Congress might actually focus its energies on making policy.
It isn’t necessary to get 218 votes in the 435-member body to win the speakership. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t mandate an absolute majority. It only says the House “shall” choose a speaker. The election math is up to the members.
This solution doesn’t require any rule changes, or back-room deals. It is an elegant proposal for today’s gritty political world, allowing the most conservative and liberal legislators to keep their precious ideological purity.
It allows Boehner to look forward to retirement as planned. In addition, Pelosi and the Democrats would surely receive praise for a statesmanlike maneuver.
The longest, most contentious battle over the speakership, according to the House of Representatives website, took roughly two months and 133 ballots. It ended in early 1856, when Representative Nathaniel Banks, Democrat of Massachusetts, beat lawmaker William Aiken of South Carolina 103-100 for the right to lead the 34th Congress. This was no majority, however, because there were 234 House members eligible to vote at the time.
Since the House membership was set at 435, four speakers have been elected with fewer than 218 votes. This includes the highest-profile Republican speaker in the party’s history — the loquacious Newt Gingrich. He won the post in 1994, at the start of the 104th Congress, though a few votes short of an absolute majority.
Congressional Democrats are understandably enjoying the GOP’s conundrum. But the smart politics leading up to the 2016 presidential election is to be the party willing do what’s best for the country. Being seen as trying to benefit from disorder in the House is ultimately not in the Democrats’ self-interest.
Opinion polls indicate Congress is near an all-time low in public approval. The Democrats insist the Republican majority is irresponsible. But voters gave the GOP a majority unequalled since the Great Depression.
Democrats can only gain by getting credit for putting politics aside and helping to solve a problem. It’s small compared to all the others needing attention. But it’s a start.