Ask an Expert: What Does the Speaker Do?

If we elect a new Congress, there will also be a new Speaker. Can you explain how the Speaker is chosen and what the duties are for that office? Durham, N.C.

The Speaker of the House is a powerful position. The House Speaker is both the presiding officer of the House of Representatives and the leader of the majority party. The Speaker is also second to the Vice-President of the United States in the line of succession to the Presidency.

Yet, although the Speaker of the House is an important national office, he or she is not elected by the nation. Instead, the Speaker is elected first, by a single congressional district to serve as their Representative in Congress and subsequently, by a majority vote of the House to hold the office of Speaker.  On opening day of each new Congress, nominations for Speaker are made from the floor – one from the majority party, one from the minority. The vote for Speaker is then conducted by a call of the entire House Membership by name, and the votes are traditionally cast along strict party lines. Because the majority party has more members than the minority party, the majority party nominee for Speaker always wins the position.

The only real contest for the office is within the party’s own nomination process. In the modern era, majority party Members of the House have usually nominated a Member to be Speaker, who has spent many years in the House and usually with previous experience in lesser leadership positions, e.g. Majority Leader or Majority Whip.

The role of Speaker – to be both the presiding officer of the House and the leader of the majority party – raises difficult problems of balance. As the Presiding Officer of the House, the Speaker is obligated to protect the rights of all Members on the House floor. However, as leader of the majority party, the Speaker also seeks to advance that party’s policies through the legislative process. Each Speaker has interpreted and balanced these conflicting roles differently, leaving the mark of his or her own personality on the office.

The office of Speaker is established by the Constitution, which simply states (in Article 1, Section 2, clause 5) that the House shall choose a Speaker. Beyond naming the position, the Constitution does not elaborate on the duties or responsibilities of the office. In fact, it does not even require the Speaker to be an elected Member of the House of Representatives, although that has always been the case.

The chief duties of the Speaker of the House have evolved over the years. They are:

  • To plan and implement the legislative agenda of the House
  • To preside over the House, choosing which Members to recognize during floor debate and ruling on points of order and maintaining decorum
  • To decide the outcome of voice votes and announce the results of recorded votes
  • To administer the oath of office to all newly elected Members of the House and to the Clerk of the House and the Officers of the House
  • To seek and maintain party unity and discipline
  • To broker compromises among committee chairs in cases of conflict
  • To negotiate with the Senate and the White House to resolve any legislative differences
  • To amass votes, building coalitions large enough to pass bills
  • To refer legislation to committee and set deadlines for committee action
  • To head the party committee which appoints majority party members to their committee assignments
  • To serve as the national spokesman/woman of the House of Representatives, announcing the official legislative agenda and actions of the House and answering inquiries from the media
  • To help candidates from the majority party by making campaign appearances on their behalf and raising campaign funds for them.
  • To exercise administrative control over the operations and internal resources of the House of Representatives
  • To control appointments of Members of the House to special committees and delegations going on foreign trips.

Even though the concept of a Speaker of the House has its origins in the British House of Commons (which called its presiding officer the Speaker because he acted as its spokesman to the Crown), political scientists over the years have refuted the idea that the U.S. Speaker was meant to be modeled after the neutral non-partisan presiding officer of the British House of Commons. Most scholars agree that the Constitution does not specify the responsibilities of the Speakership because the framers assumed he would function like the speakers of the colonial assemblies – as a strong and partisan advocate for the majority party.

Despite the title, the Speaker of the House no longer is the exclusive voice for the House of Representatives. While the Speaker is constantly sought after by the media for quotes and interviews, so are committee chairmen, political party chairmen, and the leaders of various coalitions and caucuses that are formed by House Members.

While recent House Speakers have been roundly criticized for being too partisan in how they plan the flow of the legislative agenda and structure the House, we have come a long way from earlier eras in American History. For example, in the early 1900’s, Speaker Joseph Cannon acted like a “czar,” who ignored duly elected Members of the House at will when they sought recognition to speak on the floor and who once famously said, when announcing the results of a voice vote, “The ayes make the most noise, but the noes have it.”  It is said that when Members back then were asked by their constituents for a copy of the House Rules, they would send them a picture of Speaker Cannon!

It is virtually impossible for Speakers today to act in the autocratic manner of a 20th century Speaker like Joseph Cannon. The office of Speaker has changed with the times and modern Speakers can no longer do as they please. They have been restrained by the reality that forging party unity among different factions within their own caucus, and seeking consensus among independent-minded Members in both parties, is a complex and difficult process.

Do you have a question about Congress for Ilona Nickels, Liberty Central’s Visiting Scholar?  If so, please contact us here.

One Response to “Ask an Expert: What Does the Speaker Do?”

  • sam

    There is no difference btwn the duly elected POTUS, VPOTUS, and SPEAKER. All represent all the people and all are the leaders of their parties. While their duties may differ according to their position it is certainly not unreasonable that their constituents and political parties influence their role. That’s precisely why it is crucial that we have a Congress majority and WH that is not ruled by one party only. If the checks and balances are to be valid and in play, a bi-partisan Congress and Administration is essential. We need to win the House majority and increase the Senate minority during these mid-terms to correct the course of our Ship of State which anyone of any political affiliation, bar myopia, can see is headed directly toward an immense iceberg. Let’s grab the wheel.