What happens if there’s no House speaker? These things can’t get done.

What happens if there’s no House speaker? These things can’t get done.

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The first protracted House speaker contest in a century has highlighted a potential cascade of dysfunction if one is not elected.

Choosing a speaker is the first task when a new Congress convenes. The speaker then swears in all the elected members; has no representation in the lower house of Congress until a speaker is appointed.

The current Republican impasse, in which a right-wing minority is pushing to suffocate the potential presidency of California Republican Kevin McCarthy, has stalled many of the chamber’s usual processes, from the most urgent business to basic administration.

Here’s a rundown of just a few of the things Congress can’t do because it technically can’t exist:

Draft and pass legislation

Only representatives can introduce legislation on the floor of the House, which means the chamber cannot perform its basic task of considering and passing laws. In fact, until members are sworn in, they cannot vote on the rules that will govern the chamber or create committees (focused on topics from taxes to education).

Government and public oversight

The chamber cannot use its usually broad powers to investigate federal agencies and matters of public interest until the chamber is properly constituted. That means lawmakers can’t issue subpoenas, call government officials, corporations or expert witnesses to hearings, or launch investigations into matters that may concern their constituents. As a result, the impasse also hampers House Republicans’ wish list of investigations.

Get classified notifications

Because lawmakers derive their security clearances from their official positions, elected representatives cannot participate in the classified and top-secret conferences they need to make informed policy decisions. (They can’t set policy until they’re sworn in.) Some lawmakers have said they’ve already pulled out of high-priority meetings.

Amid the uproar, House committee staffers were informed that unless House rules are finalized by Jan. 13, the committees will not be able to process payroll or student loan repayments.

Impasse comes with real risks. If a crisis were to occur at home or abroad, for example, the House of Representatives would not be able to respond, as it did in 2013 and 2020 by passing relief packages that responded to Hurricane Sandy and the coronavirus pandemic.

House staffers got mixed messages about whether they can help their constituents while the House is out of order. Congressional staffers were initially told they could not respond to these routine requests (such as family emergencies surrounding passports, visas and immigration, and issues related to veterans and student programs). The subsequent directive called this a “miscommunication” and “the result of the continued chaos created by the failure of House Republicans to elect a Speaker.”

But the situation is providing some fun moments that usually don’t get caught on camera. This has led to several lies about activity on the Chamber floor, as well as points of confusion for the administrators tasked with overseeing the chamber while she is on station.

While unlikely, for every day the House is in limbo, the country is closer to regulatory and financial cliff. December’s budget funds the government until September, meaning that despite the breakdown in the House of Representatives, the federal government can still function until then.

The multi-day gridlock also raises the specter that such a gridlock could happen again, perhaps with far greater implications. If the House didn’t elect a speaker after the presidential election, for example, there would be no way for the House to officially count states’ electoral votes, as it has historically done, along with the Senate, on January 6.

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