If you know one thing about the speaker of the House of Representatives, it is probably that the role is the most powerful position in the lower chamber of Congress. And if you know two things about the speakership, the second is probably that you do not need to be a member of Congress to be elected to fill it.
This little nugget of trivia circulates every time there is an election to fill the speaker position, meaning that it’s been circulating a lot in the past three years. There was the election in 2021 that kept Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as speaker, and then about nine weeks of voting in January when Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was eventually tapped for the position. That didn’t take, and here we are again.
So we have a new round of “you don’t have to be in the House” chatter. In part, that’s because this little loophole allows for a few days of Donald Trump sycophancy, with multiple members of Congress and the broader right-wing-iverse putting forward Trump’s name in hopes that they might get a pat on the head in response. Fox News’s Sean Hannity offered it up only a few hours after McCarthy lost his vote; on Wednesday morning, Trump did one of his a-lot-of-people-are-taking-about-it bits. (You’ll recall that he got support for the position of speaker in January — including from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who triggered McCarthy’s ouster this week.)
The Constitution’s boundaries for the position are only very loosely articulated: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.” That’s it. That’s the guideline. So, Trump, sure. Or Barack Obama, if we’re looking at former presidents. Why not? Or maybe just go for broke and choose Taylor Swift and reinvigorate interest in the chamber.
But if we’re going to speculate about non-House members who might fill the role, let’s really speculate. There is a very famous bit of American cinema that makes a relevant argument here: The absence of a prohibition serves as a tacit approval. If you want a dog to play on your basketball team, “Air Bud” told us, the lack of a rule prohibiting it means you can go ahead and do just that.
“Air Bud” didn’t spend much time considering constitutionality, so it’s not clear that its philosophy extends to things like the leadership of the House. Those interested in supporting Speaker Benji (I-Labrador) might be disappointed to learn there are other guidelines that would be prohibitive.
The rules of the 118th Congress, for example, mandate that the speaker “shall put a question in this form: ‘Those in favor (of the question), say, “Aye.”’; and after the affirmative voice is expressed, ‘Those opposed, say “No.”’” No matter how talented the dog, its ability to formulate spoken English phrases would be limited.
So I had another thought: What about an entity that could communicate in English and even make decisions? What about House Speaker ChatGPT (I-Computer)?
I did a bit of testing, presenting ChatGPT with scenarios that the House rules suggest fall under the speaker’s purview. What would Speaker GPT do if a member was being disruptive during a floor speech, for example?
“As the Speaker of the House, it is my responsibility to maintain order and decorum in the chamber to ensure a productive and respectful debate,” ChatGPT answered. “If someone is being rowdy and interrupting the person who has the floor, I would take the following steps …” and then it listed a number of things like “Call for Order” and “Identify the Disruptive Member.” The most amusing proposal centered on the worst-case scenario: Speaker GPT warned that it might need to go so far as “removing them from the chamber if necessary,” which I assume would be outsourced to human security that, unlike the speaker, had arms and mobility.
I asked more questions, trying to see how ChatGPT would handle other speaker-ish situations, like making committee determinations. And I got back similar lists, like little book reports from a smart high school sophomore who was applying for Girls State. A more finely tuned artificial intelligence would probably be able to do better, but the effect was a little like having a pleasant, automated voice tell you the steps for CPR while you’re lying on the ground clutching your chest.
Regardless, an AI speaker would probably be a non-starter for other reasons. I bothered real, actual constitutional experts for their views on the subject and received sobering, anti-robot-and-animal arguments.
“I think the current idea is far-fetched unless one is willing to say that an AI (or a parrot or a gorilla who knows sign language) is a person for constitutional purposes more broadly,” Cornell University law professor Michael Dorf wrote in an email. “The reference in Article I refers to ‘speaker and other officers,’ which implies that the speaker is an ‘officer,’ but everywhere the Constitution uses ‘officer’ it contemplates a person.”
He was happy to expand what counted as a person under the law, he added, but thought this might not be the place to start.
Georgetown University law professor Josh Chafetz pointed out that the partisanship sidestepped by having a non-sitting speaker missed the point of the role.
“The speakership in the United States — in contrast to, say, the British model — has long been about leadership of the majority party, not just about the formal mechanics of presiding over the chamber,” he wrote. “So while an AI might in theory be adequately equipped to be a British-style speaker, it’s hard to imagine that one could do what the U.S. House relies on its speaker to do.”
ChatGPT’s suggestion that it would “encourage the majority party to consider alternative nominees who may be more acceptable to both sides of the aisle,” in other words, is sort of missing the point.
Resigning myself to a non-robot, non-furry speaker, I asked ChatGPT how it would defend itself, should the House put forward a motion to vacate against it due to the constitutional concerns cited by Dorf.
“I understand that my unique position as a non-human entity has raised concerns among some of you regarding the constitutionality of my appointment as Speaker,” ChatGPT’s resulting speech argued. “First and foremost, I want to emphasize that my role as Speaker was not of my own accord, but rather a result of a decision made by the members of this esteemed chamber.”
Say what you will about making a robot speaker, but it has already mastered the art of shifting blame.