Speaker Householder is ‘absent.’ What now?

By: - July 24, 2020 1:00 am

Then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, addresses reporters. Photo by Jake Zuckerman, OCJ.

Update 7/25 2:50 p.m. – Ohio House Majority Floor Leader Bill Seitz told the Ohio Capital Journal that Speaker Larry Householder should not be considered “absent or incapacitated,” so how the House moves forward is still up in the air.

“Questions about the authority of the Speaker Pro Tempore (Jim Butler, R-Oakwood) to act in his absence or incapacitation are not yet before us,” Seitz said in an email sent Saturday.

Seitz said the majority members will hold a private meeting Tuesday to discuss the issue.

As the Ohio legislature talks about repealing a law that is now the center of a federal investigation, they are facing a major problem: How does the House come back without a speaker?

Those within House leadership are looking for policy that specifically deals with the situation, and the rules seem to be slightly vague. 

“We’re all still trying to figure out procedure, getting everyone back and doing all of those things, but it’s something we’re definitely talking about,” said Assistant Majority Whip, state Rep. Laura Lanese, during a Thursday press conference on plans to repeal House Bill 6, the nuclear bailout bill under federal scrutiny. 

She and fellow Republican Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Twp., are among a bipartisan list of elected officials who have asked for Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, to resign after announcement of a federal investigation into alleged bribery and money laundering related to the bill.

At that same press conference, Carfagna said removing Householder from his leadership position should be taken care of “in-House, no pun intended.”

“I’m going to be looking to our leadership team to provide some direction, to convene some sort of meeting of our caucus…to get our options,” Carfagna said.

The meeting is necessary because there is no specific language in House rules related to removing a speaker and calling a House session without a speaker. This is especially challenging since the speaker himself has said he will not step down.

The last time a speaker became the subject of a federal investigation came up, then-Speaker Cliff Rosenberger resigned, opening the door for a new leadership election by the body. Rosenberger has not been arrested or indicted since that investigation was announced. Householder was arrested Tuesday.

A Statehouse insider familiar with the discussions but without the authority to speak officially on the matter said the process is still being ironed out legally and administratively before any action is made. 

The Speaker’s “absence”

According to the Ohio Constitution, anyone within the House has the ability to make a motion to remove the speaker during a floor session, however, that requires the House to convene, which technically can’t happen without Householder’s consent.

A majority vote of 50 is required to remove and select a new speaker.

The question that seems to be at play in this case is whether Householder is merely “absent” since he has not been convicted of a crime to cause him to be forcibly removed from the position, or if, because there is no language saying they can’t remove a speaker under federal charges, the House can decide to move on without him.

State Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, is the current Speaker Pro-Tempore, and current House rules say he is the person to lead in the event of speaker “absence.”

“If the speaker is absent, and no member has been appointed to perform those duties temporarily during the absence, the Speaker Pro Tempore shall perform the duties of the Speaker as presiding officer during the Speaker’s absence,” directs Rule 12 in Ohio House’s official rules.

Butler did not respond to requests for comment from the Ohio Capital Journal, nor did fellow members of House leadership, Floor Leader Bill Seitz and Majority Whip Jay Edwards.

Information distributed within the Statehouse yesterday interpreted the constitution as it pertains to a speaker who refuses to resign. In that case, according to the interpretation, a voting session can be held as long as a quorum is present. After a motion to select a new speaker, nominations would be taken and a vote would take place to select a new one.

The state’s constitution also says a legislator can be removed as punishment for “disorderly conduct,” but does not specify the definition of that term in regard to the legislature.

Public officials can be removed from office because of felony charges, but only after they’ve been convicted of such offenses, according to the Ohio Revised Code.

ORC states a public servant or party official convicted of bribery, for example, “is forever disqualified from holding any public office, employment, or position of trust in this state.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in two consecutive press conferences he would call a special session of the House if needed to resolve the leadership issue, but he said he’d like to see the House do the work themselves.

“Somebody’s got to put together 50 votes (for speaker). They’ve got to find someone,” DeWine said Thursday.

In the previous day’s press conference, DeWine said it was clear “the speaker can not function as the speaker.”

No-contact orders

Even if Householder planned to come back, the fact that there is at least one member of his own caucus and the House with whom he can’t legally come into contact could make leading the House difficult.

In the details of his court appearance on Tuesday, Householder was told not to have contact with “any potential victim or witness, to include co-defendants,” and the 80-page criminal complaint lays out an unnamed representative with whom federal investigators worked to gain information of the alleged racketeering scheme.

Still, when leaving the federal courthouse after his initial appearance, Householder was asked whether he’d be stepping down as speaker, to which he responded, “no.”

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.