A congressional procedure by which members of the House of Representatives can submit a request for the presiding officer to step down.
The Constitution sets forth very few rules for the House. Many of the chamber’s oldest rules come from a manual authored by Thomas Jefferson during his time as Vice President. In 1837, the House agreed that the manual “should govern the House in all cases in which they are applicable,” and one of these rules was the motion to vacate. Essentially a vote of no confidence, the procedure provides for a speaker to be removed “at the will of the House.”
The Motion of the Immovable
A motion to vacate has only been attempted twice, and both failed. Representative George Norris (D-NE) used a motion to vacate in 1910 against Speaker Joseph Cannon (R-IL), who was blocking legislative business from reaching the floor. That motion failed because Republicans would not risk the ascension of a Democratic speaker. In 2015, Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC) filed a motion to vacate Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). The motion failed, but it is considered one of the contributing factors to Boehner’s eventual resignation later that year.
Less than three years later, in 2018, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) worked with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus to adjust the rule to require the majority of either party to bring forward a motion to vacate. Members argued the previous rule promoted extreme partisanship, often forced the speaker to placate the minority opinions from their own party, and contributed to the American people losing faith in Congress’s ability to govern.
Just last month, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) had to endure fifteen grueling votes to take control of the House. But he had to make major concessions to the far-right of his party to prevail. One of these concessions was a rule change on the motion to vacate. Though he had initially proposed a five-member threshold for a motion to vacate to proceed, he was ultimately forced to revert to the one-member threshold in place before Speaker Pelosi’s 2018 change. This means that any one member of the House can attempt to scramble McCarthy’s leadership by forcing a nearly immediate vote on his speakership. In that scenario, all 212 Democrats and only six Republicans would be needed to oust Speaker McCarthy and trigger a new election for speaker.
No motion to vacate is yet on the horizon. With federal action required soon on sensitive issues such as the debt ceiling, it presents a clear peril that Speaker McCarthy will have to navigate.