Ilona Nickels
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Accountability of Elected Officials
Career Paths to Congress
Chaplains in the U.S. Congress
House Ethics Process
House/Senate Differences
Lame Duck Congress: Attendance and Voting
Members of Congress: A Job Description
Members of Congress: Who Do They Represent?
Oath of Office for Members of Congress
Pledge of Allegiance: Standing for the Pledge
Pledge of Allegiance: Use in Congress
Qualifications to Run for Congress
Senate: 50-50 Split?
Senate Majority Leader: A Job Description
Sessions of Congress: Lengths
Size of House and Senate
Speaker of the House: a Job Description
Amending the Constitution
Constitutionality of Legislation
August Recesses
First Congress
GOP: Origins of Term
Ideology: Left or Right
Lame Duck Congress: Definition
Party Animals: the Donkey and the Elephant
Statue of Freedom
U.S. Citizenship Test
Amendment Tree in the Senate
Changing a Law
Conference Committees: In Decline
Conference Committees: Procedures
“Deem and Pass” Procedure
Executive Orders
Holds in the Senate
How to Find Basic Legislative Information
How to Keep Up With Congress
Types of Legislation

Capitol Corner

Speaker of the House: A Job Description

Can you explain how the Speaker is chosen and what the duties are for that office?

Speaker of the House: A Job Description by Ilona NickelsThe 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:

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.