The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives is the presiding officer—or speaker—of the United States House of Representatives. The current Speaker is Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat representing California's 8th congressional district.
The Speaker is second in the United States presidential line of succession, after the Vice President and before the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate. Unlike the Speaker of the British Parliament the Speaker of the House does not normally personally preside over debates, instead delegating the duty to other members of Congress of the same political party. Aside from duties relating to heading the House and the majority political party, the Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and remains the Representative of his or her congressional district.
In modern practice, the Speaker is chosen by the majority party in the House; it is usually obvious within two to three weeks of a House election who the new Speaker will be. It is expected that members of the House vote for their party's candidate. If they don't do so, they usually vote for someone else in their party or vote "present." Voting for the other party's candidate is dealt with very severely. For example, when Democrat Jim Traficant voted for Republican Dennis Hastert in the 2001 election for Speaker, the Democrats stripped him of his seniority.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the office of Speaker began to develop into a very powerful one. One of the most important sources of the Speaker's power was his position as Chairman of the Committee on Rules, which, after the reorganization of the committee system in 1880, became one of the most powerful standing committees of the House. Furthermore, several Speakers became leading figures in their political parties; examples include Democrats Samuel J. Randall, John Griffin Carlisle, and Charles F. Crisp, and Republicans James G. Blaine, Thomas Brackett Reed, and Joseph Gurney Cannon.
The power of the Speaker was greatly augmented during the tenure of the Republican Thomas Brackett Reed (1889–1891 and 1895–1899). "Czar Reed," as he was called by his opponents, sought to end the obstruction of bills by the minority, in particular by countering the tactic known as the "disappearing quorum". By refusing to vote on a motion, the minority could ensure that a quorum would not be achieved, and that the result would be invalid. Reed, however, declared that members who were in the chamber but refused to vote would still count for the purposes of determining a quorum. Through these and other rulings, Reed ensured that the Democrats could not block the Republican agenda. The Speakership reached its apogee during the term of Republican Joseph Gurney Cannon (1903–1911). Cannon exercised extraordinary control over the legislative process; he determined the agenda of the House, appointed the members of all committees, chose committee chairmen, headed the Rules Committee, and determined which committee heard each bill. He vigorously used his powers to ensure that the proposals of the Republican Party were passed by the House. In 1910, however, Democrats and several dissatisfied Republicans joined together to strip the Speaker of many of his powers, including the ability to name committee members and chairmanship of the Rules Committee. Much—but not all—of the lost influence of the position was restored over fifteen years later by Speaker Nicholas Longworth.
The middle of the 20th century saw the service of one of the most influential Speakers in history, Democrat Sam Rayburn. Rayburn was the longest serving Speaker in history, holding office from 1940 to 1947, 1949 to 1953, and 1955 to 1961. He helped shape many bills, working quietly in the background with House committees. He also helped ensure the passage of several domestic measures and foreign assistance programs advocated by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Rayburn's successor, Democrat John William McCormack (served 1962–1971), was a somewhat less influential Speaker, particularly because of dissent from younger members of the Democratic Party. During the mid-1970s, the power of the Speakership once again grew under Democrat Carl Albert. The Committee on Rules ceased to be a semi-independent panel, as it had been since the Revolt of 1910; instead, it once again became an arm of the party leadership. Moreover, in 1975, the Speaker was granted the authority to appoint a majority of the members of the Rules Committee. Meanwhile, the power of committee chairmen was curtailed, further increasing the relative influence of the Speaker.
Albert's successor, Democrat Tip O'Neill, was a prominent Speaker because of his public opposition to the policies of President Ronald Reagan. O'Neill is the longest-serving Speaker without a break (1977 through 1987). He challenged Reagan on domestic programs and on defense expenditures. Republicans made O'Neill the target of their election campaigns in 1980 and 1982; nevertheless, Democrats managed to retain their majorities in both years. The roles of the parties were reversed in 1994, when the Republicans regained control of the House after spending forty years in the minority. Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich regularly clashed with Democratic President Bill Clinton; in particular, Gingrich's "Contract with America" was a source of contention. Gingrich was ousted in 1998 when the Republican Party fared poorly in the congressional elections—although retaining a small majority—his successor, Dennis Hastert, played a much less prominent role. In the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats won majority of the House. Nancy Pelosi became the Speaker when the 110th Congress convened on January 4, 2007, making her the first female Speaker.
Another, more prolonged fight occurred in 1855 in the 34th United States Congress. The new Republican Party was not fully formed, and significant numbers of politicians, mostly former Whigs, ran for office under the Opposition label. This label was likely used because the Whig name had been discredited and abandoned, but former Whigs still needed to advertise that they were opposed to the Democrats. Following the election, the Opposition Party actually was the largest party in the U.S. House of Representatives, with the party makeup of the 234 Representatives being 100 Oppositionists, 83 Democrats, and 51 Americans (Know Nothing). Neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate could attain a majority because of the American Party. As a compromise, the Republicans nominated Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, an American candidate. This is the first example in U.S. history of a form of coalition government in either house of Congress. The House found itself in the same dilemma in the 36th, 37th and the 38th United States Congress. The three speakers elected during these House sessions where William Pennington, ironically the New Jersey governor who certified the disputed Whig candidates during the earlier Broad Seal War controversy, Galusha A. Grow, and Schuyler Colfax, who later became Vice-President under Ulysses Grant.
The last Speakership elections in which the House had to vote more than once occurred in the 65th and 72nd United States Congress. In 1917 neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate could attain a majority because 3 members of the Progressive Party and other single members of other parties voted for their own party. The Republicans had a plurality in the House but James Clark remained Speaker of the House because of the support of the Progressive Party members. In 1931 both the Republicans and the Democrats had 217 members with the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party having one member to decide who would be the deciding vote. The Farmer-Labor Party eventually voted for the Democrats candidate for speaker John Nance Garner, who later became Vice-President under Franklin Roosevelt.
One of the most notable recent elections was that of 1999. Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was widely blamed for the poor showing of the Republican Party during the general elections of 1998, declined to seek another term as Speaker and announced his resignation from the House. His expected successor was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Bob Livingston, who received the nomination of the Republican conference without opposition. However, Livingston—who had been publicly critical of President Bill Clinton's perjury during his sexual harassment trial—abruptly resigned from the House after it was revealed that he had been engaged in an extramarital affair. As a result the chief deputy, Dennis Hastert, was chosen to serve as Speaker.
On November 16, 2006, Pelosi, who was then the House Democratic leader, had been selected by her party to be the next speaker. When the 110th Congress convened on January 4, 2007, she was nominated and elected as the 60th Speaker, 233-202, over the Republican challenger John Boehner. Pelosi is the first woman to be elected Speaker of the House and to be second in the line of succession to the presidency.
The Speaker is responsible for ensuring that the House passes legislation supported by the majority party. In pursuing this goal, the Speaker may utilize his or her power to determine when each bill reaches the floor. He or she also chairs the majority party's House steering committee. While the Speaker is the functioning head of the House majority party, the same is not true of the President pro tempore of the Senate, whose office is primarily ceremonial and honorary.
When the Speaker and the President belong to the same party, the Speaker normally plays a less prominent role as the leader of the majority party.—For example, Speaker Dennis Hastert played a very low-key role during the presidency of fellow Republican George W. Bush. On the other hand, when the Speaker and the President belong to opposite parties, the public role and influence of the Speaker tend to increase. The Speaker is the highest-ranking member of the opposition party and is normally the chief public opponent of the President's agenda. Recent examples include Tip O'Neill, who was a vocal opponent of President Ronald Reagan's domestic and defense policies; Newt Gingrich, who fought a bitter battle with President Bill Clinton for control of domestic policy; and Nancy Pelosi, who has clashed with George W. Bush and John McCain over domestic policy and the Iraq War.
On the floor of the House, the presiding officer is always addressed as "Mister Speaker" or "Madam Speaker" (even if the Speaker him- or herself is not the individual presiding). When the House resolves itself into a Committee of the Whole, the Speaker designates a member to preside over the Committee as the Chairman, who is addressed as "Mister Chairman" or "Madam Chairman." Before any member may speak, he or she must seek the presiding officer's recognition. The presiding officer may call on members as he or she pleases, and may therefore control the flow of debate. The presiding officer also rules on all points of order, but such rulings may be appealed to the whole House (although the appeal is invariably tabled on a party-line vote). The Speaker is responsible for maintaining decorum in the House, and may order the Sergeant-at-Arms to enforce the rules.
The Speaker's powers and duties extend beyond presiding in the chamber. In particular, the Speaker has great influence over the committee process. The Speaker selects nine of the thirteen members of the powerful Committee on Rules, subject to the approval of the conference of the majority party. (The remaining four members are chosen by the leadership of the minority party.) Furthermore, the Speaker appoints all members of select committees and conference committees. Moreover, when a bill is introduced, the Speaker determines which committee shall consider it. As a member of the House, the Speaker is entitled to participate in debate and to vote. By custom, however, he or she does so only in exceptional circumstances. Normally, the Speaker votes only when his or her vote would be decisive, and on matters of great importance (such as constitutional amendments).
The Speaker is further responsible for overseeing the officers of the House the Clerk, the Sergeant-at-Arms, the Chief Administrative Officer, and the Chaplain. The Speaker can dismiss any of these officers, with the exception of the Chaplain. The Speaker appoints the House Historian and the General Counsel and, jointly with the Majority and Minority Leaders, appoints the House's Inspector General.
The Speaker is second in the presidential line of succession, immediately after the Vice President, under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. He or she is followed in the line of succession by the President pro tempore of the Senate and by the heads of federal executive departments. Some scholars, however, have argued that this provision of the succession statute is unconstitutional.
To date, the implementation of the Presidential Succession Act has never been necessary; thus, no Speaker has ever acted as president. Implementation of the law almost became necessary in 1973, after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. Many at the time believed that President Richard Nixon would resign because of the Watergate scandal, allowing Speaker Carl Albert to succeed. However, before he resigned, Nixon appointed Gerald Ford to the Vice Presidency in accordance with the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Nevertheless, the United States government takes the place of the Speaker in the line of succession seriously enough that, for example, since shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Speakers have used military jets to fly back and forth to their districts and for other travel. The Speaker of the House is one of the officers to whom declarations of presidential inability or of ability to resume the presidency must be addressed under the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Finally, the Speaker continues to represent the voters in his or her congressional district. However, as noted above, the Speaker does not normally vote or participate in debate.