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What Is the Role of the Speaker of the House?

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The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, commonly referred to as the Speaker of the House (or simply, the Speaker), serves as the presiding officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Speaker fulfills several roles, including representing constituents as a Member of Congress, acting as administrative head of the House, and serving as leader of the majority political party in the House.

The Speaker is second in the U.S. presidential line of succession after the vice president, but no Speaker has ever acted as president. The current Speaker of the House is John Boehner (Ohio).

How is the Speaker selected?

The U.S. Constitution authorizes the House to choose their Speaker, who is selected by roll call vote on the first day of every new Congress. Customarily, each party (Democrat and Republican) nominates a candidate and members normally vote for the candidate of their party. Roll call votes are repeated until a candidate receives an absolute majority of all votes cast. The Constitution does not require the Speaker to be a Member of Congress, although all Speakers have been members.

The Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives keeps a full list of Speakers of the House from 1789 to the present.

What are the Speaker’s duties?

The Speaker exercises duties as a Member of Congress, as presiding officer of the House of Representatives, and as leader of the majority political party in the House.

Member of Congress

Foremost, the Speaker represents voters in his or her congressional district. As a Member of Congress, he or she advocates for constituents’ needs, votes on key legislation, conducts town halls and meetings in-district and otherwise serves voters in their home districts.

Presiding officer of the House of Representatives

The Speaker’s duties as presiding officer of the House, include administering the oath of office to Members, calling the House to order, preserving order and decorum within the House chamber and galleries, recognizing members to speak on the House floor, and making rulings about House procedures. The Speaker usually delegates some of these administrative duties to other members of the majority party, such as acting as Speaker pro tempore and leading House legislative sessions.

In addition, the Speaker appoints members and chairpersons of regular committees, special or select committees, conference committees, and designates a majority of the Committee on Rules. The Speaker also determines which legislation is assigned to each committee and which legislation reaches the House floor for a vote. Furthermore, the Speaker determines the House legislative agenda, in consultation with party leaders, committee chairpersons, the president, and the Senate.

As a Member of Congress, the Speaker may participate in debate and vote but, by tradition, only does so in exceptional circumstances such as when their vote would be decisive or on matters of great importance such as constitutional amendments or war resolutions. The Speaker presides over all joint sessions with the Senate because these official gatherings are usually held in the House of Representatives.

Leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives

By tradition, the Speaker is the head of the majority party in the House. This means the Speaker is held responsible for passing legislation supported by the majority party. The Speaker usually has a less prominent role as party leader when the president belongs to the same party. In contrast, the Speaker’s prominence and public role typically increases when he or she is from a different political party than the president.

Famous examples include Speaker Tip O’Neill’s vocal opposition to President Ronald Reagan’s policies, Speaker Newt Gingrich’s bitter fights with President Bill Clinton over domestic spending, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s clashes with President George W. Bush over the Iraq War.

Historical facts about the Speaker of the House

The Speakership’s power reached a pinnacle during the term of Joseph Gurney Cannon (1903–1911), who exercised tight control over the legislative process. Cannon instituted the traditions of determining the agenda of the House, appointing the members of all committees, choosing committee chairmen, and determining which committees heard each bill. In 1910, however, a revolt of House members stripped Speaker Cannon of most of his powers, particularly the ability to name committee members.

In 1925, Speaker Nicholas Longworth (Ohio) restored most of the Speaker’s lost influence by expelling his opponents in the Republican party from the Republican caucus, stripping committee chairmen of seniority and appointing loyal supporters to committees.

Perhaps the most influential Speaker in history was Sam Rayburn (Texas) who was the longest-serving Speaker. Speaker Rayburn shaped many bills by working with House committees and also ensured passage of several domestic and foreign assistance programs advocated by President Roosevelt and President Truman.

As a sign of their influence, the House of Representatives’ office buildings in Washington D.C. are named for these three Speakers: Cannon, Longworth, and Rayburn. Here are few other historical facts about the Speaker of the House:

  • First Speaker of the House: Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg (Pennsylvania), elected presiding officer on April 1, 1789.

  • Total number of Speakers: 53

  • Longest-serving Speaker: Samuel Rayburn (Texas), served 17 years, 2 months, and 2 days over three terms as Speaker

  • First woman Speaker: Nancy Pelosi (California), selected as Speaker on January 4, 2007

  • State with the most Speakers: Massachusetts

  • Only Speaker to serve as President of the Unites States: James K. Polk (Tennessee), elected president after leaving the House

  • Youngest Speaker: Robert M. T. Hunter (Virginia), age 30

  • Oldest Speaker: Henry T. Rainey (Illinois), age 72

  • First sitting Speaker to lose re-election to his House seat: William Pennington (New Jersey)

  • Number of Speakers to die in office: 5. Michael C. Kerr (Indiana), Henry T. Rainey (Illinois), Joseph W. Byrns (Tennessee), William B. Bankhead (Alabama), Samuel Rayburn (Texas)

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