Even though the 116th Congress won’t begin until January 3, the discussion about who will become the next Speaker of the House has been a big news story of late. Here’s how the process works, and the awesome powers that the Speaker has.
It’s important to remember that the Speaker is not the leader of the majority party in the House, but is the leader of the entire House, as s/he is voted on by the entire membership. That said, usually the majority party does vote in a Speaker from their own party. The entire House votes for the Speaker on the first day of a new Congress (or whenever there is a vacancy.) The candidate who receives a majority of votes wins.
The Constitution does not outline much about the Speaker, and so what the Speaker does today has been shaped by the people who’ve held the job. The Speaker is second in line for the presidency, after the Vice President.
When the Speaker is of a different party than the president, as will be the case in the 116th Congress, they often take an outsize and much more public role. Just think of Newt Gingrich vs. President Clinton, Nancy Pelosi vs. President Bush, and John Boehner vs. President Obama.
Powers and Responsibilities of the Speaker
The Speaker serves as the administrative head of the House and its proceedings. S/He also serves as a leader of their party, creating coalitions and consensus among members, and recruiting candidates and fundraising for members. S/He also shapes policy with the powers that the office holds.
✦ Determines which legislation is assigned to each committee and decides which bills will make it to the House floor to be debated and voted on.
✦ Appoints a majority of the members of the Rules Committee, which is one of the most powerful committees in Congress as they determine under what circumstances and bill can be debated or how amendments will work. They’re often referred to as the “traffic cop” of the House and how the Speaker maintains control.
✦ Appoints the chairs of the regular committees and chooses which members go to which committees. They can also create special or select committees. (You might recall that there were special committees to investigate Watergate, and Benghazi.)
✦ Administers the oath of office to members.
✦ Calls the House to order, preserves order within the House, recognizes members to speak on the House floor, and makes rulings about House procedures. The Speaker can delegate some of these duties.
✦ Oversees accounting and procurement for the House.
✦ Presides over all joint sessions with the Senate (because these official gatherings are usually held in the House of Representatives.)
A Few Random Facts
Did you know: Only members of the House can vote for the Speaker, but the Speaker doesn’t have to be a member of the House. S/He doesn’t even need to be an elected official.
Longest serving Speaker: Samuel Rayburn (Texas), served 17+ years, and after whom the the House’s main office building is named. More on the Rayburn House Office Building
First woman speaker: Nancy Pelosi. The 2007 State of the Union address by President Bush began, “And tonight I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.”