You Don't Have to be a Member of Congress to be Speaker of the House

What the Constitution Says About Being Speaker of the House

The speaker of the House presides over the chamber's 435 members but does not have to be elected to Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner swears in the newly elected members of the 113th Congress in the House Chambers on Jan. 3, 2013. Mark Wilson/Getty Images News

Anyone can run for speaker of the House. That's right: You don't even have to be a member of Congress to serve in the most powerful position in the U.S. House of Representatives. At least that's how many interpret the Constitution.

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According to Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution: "The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers." The documents says nothing about the speaker being a member of the House.

Even the Clerk of the House states: "... The Constitution does not require the Speaker to be a Member of the House."

​Though a strict reading of the Constitution appears to allow anyone to become speaker of the House, lawmakers have never actually elected anyone from outside the lower chamber to serve in the position. "Although the Constitution does not so require, the Speaker has always been a Member of the House," the Congressional Research Service wrote in 2015.

​Protest Votes for Speaker of the House

Even though the House has never chosen anyone from outside Congress to serve as speaker, many members have cast ballots for nonmembers during leadership elections. Among those who have gotten votes for speaker over the years have been former Secretary of State Colin Powell, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and former U.S. Rep. Allen West of Florida.

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Dispute Over the Constitutional Requirements for Speaker

Some political observers believe the drafters of the Constitution didn't mean for the position of House speaker to be open to everyone, even those outside of the chamber. Brian Palmer, writing for Slate.com, said the framers "likely took for granted that the speaker had to be a member of Congress."

As Palmer explained in 2013:

"In his 1801 Manual of Parliamentary Practice, Thomas Jefferson likened the election of the leader of the Senate — and, by implication, the speaker of the House — to the British Parliament’s tradition of physically dragging the elected speaker of the House of Commons to the chair. That comparison is revealing, because the speaker of the House of Commons is elected from its membership. In addition, state legislatures always drew speakers from their own memberships, even though the state constitutions in place at the time the federal Constitution was drafted did not explicitly require it."

But the Constitution remains untested because no serious contender for speaker of the House has emerged.

You Wouldn't Want the Job Anyway

So you want to run for speaker of the House? You'd better think twice. The leadership position has been called the Worst Job in Washington, and for good reason. "The speakership has become one of the hardest and least secure jobs in Washington," wrote Matthew Green, an associate professor of political science at Catholic University.

First, there seems to be a curse on the office. Consider the fates of speakers past who resigned in disgrace, or at the very least a cloud of suspicion: Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingstone, Dennis Hastert.

Second, trying to unite the various factions of the two political parties has been likened to trying to herd cats, only more precarious, especially if you're a Republican dealing with both Tea Party and more pragmatic lawmakers.