Speaker of the United States House of Representatives: Wikis


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Speaker of the United States House of Representatives
Seal of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives.svg
Official seal
Nancy Pelosi

since January 4, 2007
Style The Honorable
Madam Speaker
(Within the House)
Appointer Elected by the U.S. House of Representatives
Inaugural holder Frederick Muhlenberg
April 1, 1789
Formation U.S. Constitution
March 4, 1789
Succession Second
Website speaker.house.gov

The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives is the presiding officer of the United States House of Representatives. The current Speaker is Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat who represents California's 8th congressional district.

The Speaker is second in the United States presidential line of succession, after the Vice President and before the President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate.[1] 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 consolidating the office with considerable power. The Speaker does not usually personally preside over debates, instead delegating the duty to other members of Congress of the same political party[citation needed]. Aside from duties relating to heading the House and the majority political party, the Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and represents one's congressional district.



The House of Representatives elects the Speaker of the House. Whoever receives a simple majority of the votes is elected and after election, is sworn in by the Dean of the House, the chamber's longest-serving member. There is no requirement in the Constitution that the speaker must also be a current member of the House of Representatives to serve as speaker; however, every speaker elected has also been an elected representative.

In modern practice, the majority party chooses Speaker. It is usually obvious within two to three weeks of a House election who will be elected Speaker, and 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."[citation needed]


The first Speaker was Frederick Muhlenberg, who was elected as a Federalist for the first four U.S. Congresses.[2] The position of Speaker was not a very influential one, however, until the tenure of Henry Clay (1811–1814, 1815–1820, and 1823–1825). In contrast with 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.

Henry Clay used his influence as Speaker to ensure the passage of measures he favored

Towards the end of the nineteenth 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.

The power of the Speaker was greatly augmented during the tenure of the Republican Thomas Brackett Reed (1889–1891 and 1895–1899). "Czar Reed," as he was called by his opponents,[3] sought to end the obstruction of bills by the minority, in particular by countering the tactic known as the "disappearing quorum".[4] 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.

Joseph Gurney Cannon is often considered the most powerful Speaker in the history of the House

The middle of the 20th century saw the service of one of the most influential Speakers in history, Democrat Sam Rayburn.[5] 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 the Republicans regained control of the House after spending forty years in the minority. Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich regularly clashed with Democratic President Bill Clinton; in particular, Gingrich's "Contract with America" was a source of contention. Gingrich was ousted in 1998 when the Republican Party fared poorly in the congressional elections—although retaining a small majority—his successor, Dennis Hastert, played a much less prominent role. 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. Pelosi was, from the beginning, an influential and powerful Speaker,[citation needed] and the main leader of the opposition to the Republican George W. Bush administration. With the election of Barack Obama and a more Democratic Congress (races in which she played an influential role) Pelosi became the leader of the nation's most prominent reforms, including financial measures and health care reform. Bush Presidency veteran Karl Rove has referred to her tenure so far as an "iron reign".[6]

Notable elections

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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 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.

One of the most notable recent elections was that of 1999. Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was widely blamed for the poor showing of the Republican Party during the general elections of 1998, declined to seek another term as Speaker and announced his resignation from the House. His expected successor was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Bob Livingston, who received the nomination of the Republican conference without opposition. However, Livingston—who had been publicly critical of President Bill Clinton's perjury during his sexual harassment trial—abruptly resigned from the House after it was revealed that he had been engaged in an extramarital affair. As a result, the chief deputy, Dennis Hastert, was chosen to serve as Speaker.

On November 16, 2006, Nancy Pelosi, who was then the House Democratic leader, had been selected by her party to be the next speaker.[7] When the 110th Congress convened on January 4, 2007, she was nominated and elected as the 60th Speaker, 233-202, over the Republican challenger John Boehner. Pelosi is the first woman to be elected Speaker of the House and to be second in the line of succession to the presidency.

Partisan role

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 the British House of Commons, which is meant to be scrupulously non-partisan. The Speaker in the United States is, by tradition, 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 utilize their 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. 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; and Nancy Pelosi, who clashed with George W. Bush over domestic policy and the Iraq War.

Presiding officer

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 the Speaker him- or herself is not 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 (although the appeal is invariably tabled on a party-line vote). 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).

Other functions

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 3 U.S.C. § 15, 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, with the exception of the Chaplain[citation needed]. 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.[8]

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 their congressional district.

See also


  1. ^ See the United States Presidential Line of Succession statute, 3 U.S.C. § 19
  2. ^ "Frederick A. Muhlenberg (1750–1801)". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved on July 05, 2007.
  3. ^ Robinson, William A. "Thomas B. Reed, Parliamentarian". The American Historical Review, October, 1931. pp. 137–138.
  4. ^ Oleszek, Walter J. "A Pre-Twentieth Century Look at the House Committee on Rules". U.S. House of Representatives, December. 1998. Retrieved on July 05, 2007.
  5. ^ "Sam Rayburn House Museum". Texas Historical Commission. Retrieved on July 05, 2007.
  6. ^ Karl Rove Picks The Seven Most Powerful Conservatives - No. 3: Jon Kyl - Forbes.com
  7. ^ . San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. City & County of San Francisco, November 16, 2006. Retrieved on July 5, 2007.
  8. ^ See Akhil Reed Amar & Vikram Amar,Is The Presidential Succession Law Constitutional?, 48 Stan. L. Rev. 113 (1995). This issue is discussed in the entry on the United States Presidential Line of Succession

External links

  • "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.
United States presidential line of succession
Preceded by
Vice President
2nd in line Succeeded by
President pro tempore of the Senate

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