The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, or Speaker of the House, is the presiding officer of the United States House of Representatives. The office was established in 1789 by Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which states in part, "The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker..." The current speaker is John Boehner, a Republican who represents Ohio's 8th congressional district. The Constitution does not require that the Speaker be an elected Member of Congress, but no non-member has ever been elected Speaker.
The Speaker is second in the United States presidential line of succession, after the Vice President and ahead of the President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate. Unlike in some Westminster System parliaments, the Speaker is a leadership position in the majority party and actively works to set that party's legislative agenda, therefore endowing the office with considerable power. The Speaker does not usually personally preside over debates, instead delegating the duty to freshman members of the House of the majority party.
Aside from duties relating to heading the House and the majority political party, the Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and represents his or her congressional district.
The House of Representatives elects the speaker of the house on the first day of every new Congress. Each party nominates a candidate. There is usually some degree of consensus within each party's leadership as to who the favored candidate will be. Whoever receives a simple majority of the votes is elected. The new Speaker is then sworn in by the Dean of the House, the chamber's longest-serving member.
In modern practice, the Speaker is chosen by the majority party from among its senior leaders, either when a vacancy in the office arrives, or when the majority party changes. It is usually obvious within two or three weeks of a House election who the new Speaker will be. Previous Speakers have been minority leaders (when the majority party changes, as they are already the House party leader, and as the minority leader is usually their party's nominee for speaker), or majority leaders (upon departure of the current speaker in the majority party), assuming that the party leadership hierarchy is followed. In the past, other potent candidates have included chairman of influential standing committees.
So far the Democrats have always elevated their minority leader to the speakership upon reclaiming majority control of the House, however Republicans have not always followed this leadership succession pattern. In 1919, for instance, Republicans bypassed James R. Mann, R-IL, who had been minority leader for eight years, and elected Frederick Gillett, R-MA, to be Speaker. Mann "had angered many Republicans by objecting to their private bills on the floor;" also he was a prot g of autocratic Speaker Joseph Cannon, R-IL (1903 1911), and many Members "suspected that he would try to re-centralize power in his hands if elected Speaker." More recently, although Robert H. Michel was the Minority Leader in 1994 when the Republicans regained control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections, he had already announced his retirement and had little or no involvement in the campaign, including the Contract with America which was unveiled six weeks before voting day. Michel opted not to seek re-election because he had been isolated in the caucus by Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and other younger and more aggressive congressmen; so it would have been unlikely that Michel could have retained a House leadership post in the succeeding session of Congress.
It is expected that members of the House vote for their party's candidate. If they do not do so, they usually vote for someone else in their party or vote "present". Those who vote for the other party's candidate often face serious consequences, up to and including the loss of seniority. The last major instance where a representative voted for the other party's candidate was in 2000, when Democrat Jim Traficant of Ohio voted for Republican Dennis Hastert. In response, the Democrats stripped him of his seniority and he lost all of his committee posts.
If the Speaker's party loses control of the House in an election, and if the Speaker and Majority Leader both remain in the leadership hierarchy, that would mean that they would become the Minority Leader and Minority Whip, respectively. As the minority party has one less leadership position after losing the speaker's chair, there may be a contest for the remaining leadership positions. Most Speakers whose party has lost control of the House had not returned to the party leadership (Tom Foley lost his seat, Dennis Hastert returned to the backbenches and resigned from the House in late 2007). However, Speakers Joseph William Martin, Jr. and Sam Rayburn did seek the Minority Leader post to retain the House party leadership, as their parties swapped control of the House in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Nancy Pelosi is the most recent example of an outgoing Speaker who was elected Minority Leader, after the Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 elections.
Frederick Muhlenberg (1789 1791, 1793 1795), was the first Speaker.
The first Speaker was Frederick Muhlenberg, who was elected as a Federalist for the first four U.S. Congresses.
The position of Speaker first gained power under Henry Clay (1811 1814, 1815 1820, and 1823 1825). In contrast to many of his predecessors, Clay participated in several debates, and used his influence to procure the passage of measures he supported for instance, the declaration of the War of 1812, and various laws relating to Clay's "American System". Furthermore, when no candidate received an Electoral College majority in the 1824 presidential election causing the president to be decided by the House, Speaker Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams instead of Andrew Jackson, thereby ensuring the former's victory. Following Clay's retirement in 1825, the power of the Speakership once again began to decline; at the same time, however, Speakership elections became increasingly bitter. As the Civil War approached, several sectional factions nominated their own candidates, often making it difficult for any candidate to attain a majority. In 1855 and again in 1859, for example, the contest for Speaker lasted for two months before the House achieved a result. Speakers tended to have very short tenures; for example, from 1839 to 1863 there were eleven Speakers, only one of whom served for more than one term. To date, James K. Polk is the only Speaker of the House to be later elected President of the United States.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the office of Speaker began to develop into a very powerful one. One of the most important sources of the Speaker's power was his position as Chairman of the Committee on Rules, which, after the reorganization of the committee system in 1880, became one of the most powerful standing committees of the House. Furthermore, several Speakers became leading figures in their political parties; examples include Democrats Samuel J. Randall, John Griffin Carlisle, and Charles F. Crisp, and Republicans James G. Blaine, Thomas Brackett Reed, and Joseph Gurney Cannon.
(1813 1814, 1815 1820, 1823 1825) used his influence as Speaker to ensure the passage of measures he favored
The power of the Speaker was greatly augmented during the tenure of the Republican Thomas Brackett Reed (1889 1891, 1895 1899). "Czar Reed", as he was called by his opponents, sought to end the obstruction of bills by the minority, in particular by countering the tactic known as the "disappearing quorum". By refusing to vote on a motion, the minority could ensure that a quorum would not be achieved, and that the result would be invalid. Reed, however, declared that members who were in the chamber but refused to vote would still count for the purposes of determining a quorum. Through these and other rulings, Reed ensured that the Democrats could not block the Republican agenda.
The Speakership reached its apogee during the term of Republican Joseph Gurney Cannon (1903 1911). Cannon exercised extraordinary control over the legislative process; he determined the agenda of the House, appointed the members of all committees, chose committee chairmen, headed the Rules Committee, and determined which committee heard each bill. He vigorously used his powers to ensure that the proposals of the Republican Party were passed by the House. In 1910, however, Democrats and several dissatisfied Republicans joined together to strip the Speaker of many of his powers, including the ability to name committee members and chairmanship of the Rules Committee. Fifteen years later, Speaker Nicholas Longworth restored much but not all of the lost influence of the position.
One of the most influential Speakers in history was Democrat Sam Rayburn. Rayburn was the longest-serving Speaker in history, holding office from 1940 to 1947, 1949 to 1953, and 1955 to 1961. He helped shape many bills, working quietly in the background with House committees. He also helped ensure the passage of several domestic measures and foreign assistance programs advocated by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Rayburn's successor, Democrat John William McCormack (served 1962 1971), was a somewhat less influential Speaker, particularly because of dissent from younger members of the Democratic Party. During the mid-1970s, the power of the Speakership once again grew under Democrat Carl Albert. The Committee on Rules ceased to be a semi-independent panel, as it had been since the Revolt of 1910; instead, it once again became an arm of the party leadership. Moreover, in 1975, the Speaker was granted the authority to appoint a majority of the members of the Rules Committee. Meanwhile, the power of committee chairmen was curtailed, further increasing the relative influence of the Speaker.
Albert's successor, Democrat Tip O'Neill, was a prominent Speaker because of his public opposition to the policies of President Ronald Reagan. O'Neill is the longest-serving Speaker without a break (1977 through 1987). He challenged Reagan on domestic programs and on defense expenditures. Republicans made O'Neill the target of their election campaigns in 1980 and 1982; nevertheless, Democrats managed to retain their majorities in both years.
The roles of the parties were reversed in 1994 when, after spending forty years in the minority, the Republicans regained control of the House with the platform "Contract with America" which was spearheaded by Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. Speaker Gingrich would regularly clash with Democratic President Bill Clinton, leading to the United States federal government shutdown of 1995 and 1996, in which Clinton was largely seen to have prevailed. Gingrich's hold on the leadership was weakened significantly by that and several other controversies, as he faced a caucus revolt in 1997, and after the Republicans lost House seats in 1998 (although retaining a majority) he did not stand for a third term as Speaker. His successor, Dennis Hastert, had been chosen as a compromise candidate, since the other Republicans in the leadership were more controversial. Hastert played a much less prominent role than other contemporary Speakers, being overshadowed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and President George W. Bush. The Republicans came out of the 2000 elections with a further reduced majority, but made small gains in 2002 and 2004. The periods of 2001-2002 and 2003-2007 were the first times since 1953-1955 that there was single-party Republican leadership in Washington, interrupted from 2001-2003 as Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republicans to become independent and caucused with the Democrats to give them the 51-49 Senate majority.
In the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats won majority of the House. Nancy Pelosi became the Speaker when the 110th Congress convened on January 4, 2007, making her the first female Speaker. With the election of Barack Obama and Democratic gains in both houses of Congress, Pelosi became the first speaker since Tom Foley to hold the office during single-party Democratic leadership in Washington. During the 111th Congress, Pelosi was the driving force behind several of Obama's major initiatives which proved controversial. The Republicans campaigned against Pelosi and the Democrats' legislation and regained control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, with John Boehner taking over as Speaker.
Historically, there have been several controversial elections to the Speakership, such as the contest of 1839. In that case, even though the 26th United States Congress House section convened on December 2, it could not begin the Speakership election until December 14 because of an election dispute in New Jersey known as the "Broad Seal War". Two rival delegations one Whig and the other Democrat had been certified as elected by different branches of the New Jersey government. The problem was compounded because the result of the dispute would determine whether the Whigs or the Democrats held the majority. Neither party agreed to permit a Speakership election with the opposite party's delegation participating. Finally, it was agreed to exclude both delegations from the election; a Speaker was finally chosen on December 17.
Another, more prolonged fight occurred in 1855 in the 34th United States Congress. The new Republican Party was not fully formed, and significant numbers of politicians, mostly former Whigs, ran for office under the Opposition label. This label was likely used because the Whig name had been discredited and abandoned, but former Whigs still needed to advertise that they were opposed to the Democrats. Following the election, the Opposition Party actually was the largest party in the U.S. House of Representatives, with the party makeup of the 234 Representatives being 100 Oppositionists, 83 Democrats, and 51 Americans (Know Nothing). Neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate could attain a majority because of the American Party. As a compromise, the Republicans nominated Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, an American candidate. This is the first example in U.S. history of a form of coalition government in either house of Congress. The House found itself in the same dilemma in the 36th, 37th and the 38th United States Congress. The three speakers elected during these House sessions where William Pennington, ironically the New Jersey governor who certified the disputed Whig candidates during the earlier Broad Seal War controversy, Galusha A. Grow, and Schuyler Colfax, who later became Vice-President under Ulysses Grant.
The last Speakership elections in which the House had to vote more than once occurred in the 65th and 72nd United States Congress. In 1917, neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate could attain a majority because 3 members of the Progressive Party and other single members of other parties voted for their own party. The Republicans had a plurality in the House but James "Champ" Clark remained Speaker of the House because of the support of the Progressive Party members. In 1931, both the Republicans and the Democrats had 217 members with the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party having one member to decide who would be the deciding vote. The Farmer-Labor Party eventually voted for the Democrats' candidate for speaker John Nance Garner, who later became Vice-President under Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1997, several Republican Congressional leaders tried to force Speaker Newt Gingrich to resign; however Gingrich refused since that would have required a new election for Speaker, which could led to the possibility that Democrats along with dissenting Republicans would vote for the Democrat Dick Gephardt (then Minority Leader) as Speaker. After the 1998 midterm elections where the Republicans lost seats, Gingrich did not stand for re-election. The next two figures in the House Republican leadership hierarchy, majority leader Richard Armey and majority whip Tom DeLay, chose not to contest the Speaker's office. The chairman of a powerful standing committee, Bob Livingston, who chaired the Appropriations Committee, declared his bid for speakership which was unopposed, making him Speaker-elect. Then it was revealed that Livingston who had been publicly critical of President Bill Clinton's perjury during his sexual harassment-had engaged in an extramarital affair himself, and he opted to resign from the House despite being urged to stay on by House Democratic leader Gephardt. Subsequently, the chief deputy whip Dennis Hastert was selected as the Speaker.
On November 16, 2006, Nancy Pelosi, who was then the House Minority Leader, was designated as Speaker-elect by the House Democrats. When the 110th Congress convened on January 4, 2007, she was nominated and elected as the 60th Speaker by a vote of 233-202, becoming the first woman to be elected Speaker of the House. Pelosi remained speaker through the 111th Congress. For the 112th Congress, Republican John Boehner was unanimously designated Speaker-elect by House Republicans and was elected the 61st Speaker of the House. Nineteen Democratic representatives voted for Democrats other than Pelosi, who had been chosen as House Minority Leader and the Democrats' candidate for Speaker, as a show of dissent.
The Constitution does not spell out the political role of the Speaker. As the office has developed historically, however, it has taken on a clearly partisan cast, very different from the speakership of most Westminster-style legislatures, such as the Speaker of the British House of Commons, which is meant to be scrupulously non-partisan. The Speaker in the United States, by tradition, is the head of the majority party in the House of Representatives, outranking the Majority Leader. However, despite having the right to vote, the Speaker usually does not participate in debate and rarely votes on the floor.
The Speaker is responsible for ensuring that the House passes legislation supported by the majority party. In pursuing this goal, the Speaker may use his or her power to determine when each bill reaches the floor. They also chair the majority party's House steering committee. While the Speaker is the functioning head of the House majority party, the same is not true of the President pro tempore of the Senate, whose office is primarily ceremonial and honorary.
When the Speaker and the President belong to the same party, the Speaker normally plays a less prominent role as the leader of the majority party. For example, Speaker Dennis Hastert played a very low-key role during the presidency of fellow Republican George W. Bush. Sometimes, however, the Speaker will play a big role even when they belong to the same party as the President, such as when Speaker Nancy Pelosi played a role in continuing the push for health care reform during the presidency of fellow Democrat Barack Obama. On the other hand, when the Speaker and the President belong to opposite parties, the public role and influence of the Speaker tend to increase. The Speaker is the highest-ranking member of the opposition party and is normally the chief public opponent of the President's agenda. Recent examples include Tip O'Neill, who was a vocal opponent of President Ronald Reagan's domestic and defense policies; Newt Gingrich, who fought a bitter battle with President Bill Clinton for control of domestic policy; Nancy Pelosi, who clashed with President George W. Bush over domestic policy and the Iraq War; and current Speaker John Boehner, who regularly clashes with President Barack Obama over budget issues as well as social issues such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The Speaker holds a variety of powers as the presiding officer of the House of Representatives, but usually delegates them to another member of the majority party. The Speaker may designate any Member of the House to act as Speaker pro tempore and preside over the House. During important debates, the Speaker pro tempore is ordinarily a senior member of the majority party who may be chosen for their skill in presiding. At other times, more junior members may be assigned to preside to give them experience with the rules and procedures of the House. The Speaker may also designate a Speaker pro tempore for special purposes; for example, during long recesses, a Representative whose district is near Washington, D.C. may be designated as Speaker pro tempore to sign enrolled bills.
On the floor of the House, the presiding officer is always addressed as "Mister Speaker" or "Madam Speaker," even if it is a Speaker pro tempore, and not the Speaker him- or herself, who is the individual presiding). When the House resolves itself into a Committee of the Whole, the Speaker designates a member to preside over the Committee as the Chairman, who is addressed as "Mister Chairman" or "Madam Chairwoman." To speak, members must seek the presiding officer's recognition. The presiding officer may call on members as they please, and may therefore control the flow of debate. The presiding officer also rules on all points of order, but such rulings may be appealed to the whole House. The Speaker is responsible for maintaining decorum in the House, and may order the Sergeant-at-Arms to enforce the rules.
The Speaker's powers and duties extend beyond presiding in the chamber. In particular, the Speaker has great influence over the committee process. The Speaker selects nine of the thirteen members of the powerful Committee on Rules, subject to the approval of the conference of the majority party. (The leadership of the minority party chooses remaining four members.) Furthermore, the Speaker appoints all members of select committees and conference committees. Moreover, when a bill is introduced, the Speaker determines which committee shall consider it. As a member of the House, the Speaker is entitled to participate in debate and to vote but, by custom, only does so in exceptional circumstances. Ordinarily, the Speaker votes only when their vote would be decisive, and on matters of great importance (such as constitutional amendments).
Because joint sessions and joint meetings of both houses of Congress are held in the Hall of the House of Representatives, the Speaker presides over all such joint sessions and meetings. The Twelfth Amendment and , however, require that the President of the Senate preside over joint sessions of Congress assembled to count electoral votes and to certify the results of a presidential election.
The Speaker is further responsible for overseeing the officers of the House: the Clerk, the Sergeant-at-Arms, the Chief Administrative Officer, and the Chaplain. The Speaker can dismiss any of these officers. The Speaker appoints the House Historian and the General Counsel and, jointly with the Majority and Minority Leaders, appoints the House's Inspector General.
The Speaker is second in the presidential line of succession, immediately after the Vice President, under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. The Speaker is followed in the line of succession by the President pro tempore of the Senate and by the heads of federal executive departments. Some scholars, however, argue that this provision of the succession statute is unconstitutional.
To date, the implementation of the Presidential Succession Act has never been necessary; thus, no Speaker has ever acted as president. Implementation of the law almost became necessary in 1973, after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. Many at the time believed that President Richard Nixon would resign because of the Watergate scandal, allowing Speaker Carl Albert to succeed. However, before he resigned, Nixon appointed Gerald Ford to the Vice Presidency in accordance with the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Nevertheless, the United States government takes the place of the Speaker in the line of succession seriously enough that, for example, since shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Speakers have used military jets to fly back and forth to their districts and for other travel. The Speaker of the House is one of the officers to whom declarations of presidential inability of or ability to resume the presidency must be addressed under the Twenty-fifth Amendment.
Finally, the Speaker continues to represent voters in his or her congressional district.
- Garraty, John, ed. American National Biography (1999) 20 volumes; contains scholarly biographies of all Speakers no longer alive.
- Green, Matthew N. The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership (Yale University Press; 2010) 292 pages; Examines partisan pressures and other factors that shaped the leadership of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; focuses on the period since 1940.
- Remini, Robert V. The House: the history of the House of Representatives (Smithsonian Books, 2006), the standard scholarly history
- Rohde, David W. Parties and Leaders in the Postreform House (1991)
- Smock, Raymond W., and Susan W. Hammond, eds. Masters of the House: Congressional Leadership Over Two Centuries (1998) short biographies of key leaders
- Zelizer. Julian E. ed. The American Congress: The Building of Democracy (2004) comprehensive history by 40 scholars
"Capitol Questions." C-SPAN (2003). Notable elections and role.
The Cannon Centenary Conference: The Changing Nature of the Speakership. (2003). House Document 108-204. History, nature and role of the Speakership.
Congressional Quarterly's Guide to Congress, 5th ed. (2000). Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Speaker of the House of Representatives. (2005). Official Website. Information about role as party leader, powers as presiding officer.
Wilson, Woodrow. (1885). Congressional Government. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
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