Speaker of the House of Representatives

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SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES. The concept of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was borrowed from the British House of Commons and some colonial assemblies. The Speaker is the first of only four officers named in the U.S. Constitution: "The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers …" (Article I, Section 2). There is no requirement that the Speaker be a member of the House, but in 1789 the House chose a member, Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg, as its first Speaker, and this tradition has continued. The Speaker is usually a senior member of the majority party.

As the leader of the House, the Speaker represents it to outside constituencies, including the president, the Senate, and often the media and the public. The Speaker also serves as the partisan leader of the majority party within the chamber and has come to be regarded as only second in power and importance to the president. Standing behind the vice president in succession to the presidency, several Speakers have been just one step away from the highest office in the land—for example, Sam Rayburn, when Harry S. Truman was without a vice president (1945– 1949), and Carl Albert, after the resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (1973) and again after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon (1974).

Every two years, at the beginning of each new Congress, the House must select its speaker before it can conduct its business; although the Speaker is elected by the majority of all House members, in practice the House merely ratifies the choice of the majority party. The Speaker's first duty is to preside over the House. The Speaker interprets the rules of the House, and his rulings can be overturned by simple majority vote, though historically this has rarely happened. The Speaker also preserves order, enforces the rules, refers bills and resolutions to the appropriate committees, and prevents dilatory tactics from paralyzing House action.

As the leader of the majority party, the Speaker may use the powers of the office to advance the legislative agenda of the party. The Speaker is influential in determining which bills the House will consider and determines the schedule. The Speaker also places his party's members on committees. The powerful Committee on Rules, which has been called "the arm of the Speaker," sets the rules for debate, including which, if any, amendments may be in order. The Speaker negotiates many internal matters with the minority leader, such as the membership ratio between parties on committees, and the Speaker selects members of conference committees to negotiate differences with the Senate. Henry Clay, Thomas Reed, Joe Cannon, Sam Rayburn, and Newt Gingrich have been among the most influential holders of this office.


Congressional Quarterly, Guide to the Congress of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1999.

Davidson, Roger, Susan Webb Hammond, and Raymond Smock. Masters of the House: Congressional Leadership over Two Centuries. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998.

Peters, Ron M., Jr. ed. The Speaker: Leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1994.

Brian D.Posler

See alsoCongress, United States .