How To Replace Tom DeLay

A guide to congressional leadership elections.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story hereThe Explainer now has its own free daily podcast; click here to learn more.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay may face a criminal trial within the next few months, after only one of the three charges against him was dismissed on Monday. Some House Republicans now say they’d like to vote on a new, permanent majority leader in January. How do you get elected party leader?

By secret ballot. Party organizations in the House and Senate typically elect their leaders every two years, not long after the public votes in the new Congress. Four sets of leaders must be chosen since each party has a leadership structure in each chamber. (The groups are the Senate Republican Conference, the House Republican Conference, the Senate Democratic Conference, and the House Democratic Caucus.) Though each organization has its own election rules, the procedures are fairly standard. For each elected position, one or more members are nominated and seconded in a closed-door meeting. Short speeches are made on their behalf, and then all the members vote in secret. A majority of votes determines the winner, with the lowest vote-getter being taken off the ballot if no one gets more than half.

House Republicans elect members for several positions, including majority leader, whip, chair, vice chair, and secretary. (They also nominate a speaker, who then gets elected by majority vote in the full House.) In order to vote, members—i.e., every House Republican—must attend a conference meeting, which usually takes place at the Capitol. The chair can convene a meeting with the consultation of the speaker, or a group of 50 members can call for one by written request. No one is allowed at the meeting except the congressmen themselves and maybe a few members of the leadership staff.

Nominees for leadership positions don’t get to make a speech before the vote. (Under House Republican Conference rules, nominators get three minutes to speak on behalf of their candidate, while seconders have only a minute.) As a result, candidates for leadership positions must conduct their campaigns for office before the meeting is held.

House leadership campaigns tend to be larger in scale than those of the Senate. A candidate for House majority leader might organize an informal election committee of his most trusted supporters, who would in turn make phone calls and hold meetings to gather up the necessary votes. Staff members and a few lobbyists might be involved in the process. A Senate candidate would be more likely to work the phones himself, since he’d need to wrangle votes from only a few dozen lawmakers.

Why would you want to be House majority leader? First, you’d have more power and responsibilities than other lawmakers. Winning would also put you in an excellent position to run for speaker of the House somewhere down the line. As majority leader, you’d get a special office and an extra-large staff. Finally, you’d get a pay raise—in 2005, majority leaders earned $180,100, as opposed to the $162,100 paid to the rest of the herd.

Bonus Explainer: We didn’t always have official majority leaders. Though each party had de facto leaders in the 19th century, the formal title wasn’t bestowed on anyone in the House until 1899. The Senate followed suit in the years following the 1912 elections. The authority of the party leaders grew over the next few decades and in the period following World War II.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Barbara Sinclair of UCLA and Steven S. Smith of George Washington University.