According to Thomas B. “Czar” Reed (1839–1902) (R-Maine), who served as Speaker of the House of Representatives for six years between 1889 and 1899, the office of Speaker is “the embodiment of the House, its power and dignity.” One of the few federal offices expressly created by the Constitution in addition to the president, vice president, and chief justice of the United States and the president pro tempore of the Senate, the Speaker of the House is second in the line of succession to the presidency after the vice president.
Many other national constitutions create a similar position and title for the presiding officer of the lower (more popularly elected) house of the legislature. The United Kingdom also has a speaker in its Parliament, who presides over the House of Commons, and under the constitutions of Singapore (1974) and Sweden (1975) a speaker is the chief officer of their unicameral national legislatures.
Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Speaker of the House of Representatives was not a major power in the federal government. Henry Clay (1777–1852) (D-R, Ky.), who served as Speaker from 1811 to 1814, 1815 to 1820, and 1823 to 1825, is credited with significantly increasing the incumbent’s power. Increased power, however, led to abuses—preventing legislation from being voted on and appointing cronies as committee chairmen, for example—and members revolted against Speaker Joseph G. Cannon (1836–1926) (R-Ill.) in 1910, seven years after he became Speaker. “Uncle Joe,” as Cannon was sometimes called, used his power to make committee assignments to reward loyal cronies and was suspected on occasion of miscounting votes in the House to his advantage. “The ‘ayes’ make the most noise,” he once ruled on a voice vote, “but the ‘nays’ have it.”
The office of Speaker of the House has been filled by a number of men who have served honorably and ably, among them Sam Rayburn (1882–1961) (D-Texas), who was Speaker, except for two two-year periods spent as minority leader, from 1940 until his death in 1961, and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (1912–94) (D-Mass.), who served from 1977 until his retirement in 1987. Others, however, conducted themselves less than honorably. Jim Wright (b. 1922) (D-Texas) resigned in 1989 under a cloud of financial scandal following a House Ethics Committee report finding sixty-nine violations of House rules. Newt Gingrich (b. 1943) (R-Ga.) removed himself from reelection for the 1999–2000 session to avoid scrutiny concerning his extramarital affair. The “glass dome” of the U.S. Capitol was shattered in 2007 when Nancy Pelosi, the daughter and sister of mayors of Baltimore, Maryland, and a member of Congress from California since 1987, was elected by the House of Representatives as the first woman Speaker of that body.
Every legislative body needs a presiding officer. In Article I, section 2, the Constitution provides that the Speaker of the House of Representatives is to be the presiding officer of the lower house of Congress—the house that the Framers of the Constitution envisioned as being closer to the people than the upper house: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers....” This selection occurs at the beginning of each two-year session of Congress, starting “at noon on the 3d day of January,” according to the Twentieth Amendment (1933) (see Lame Ducks).
Although not specifically prohibited by the Constitution, no nonmember of the House has ever been named Speaker, who is chosen by the members of the House’s majority party (see Political Parties) and then submitted to a formal vote of the whole House. The member who in the last session was the majority or minority leader generally advances to the office of Speaker once that member’s party gains a majority in the newly elected House.
The Constitution does not prescribe the Speaker’s duties, but they include presiding over sessions of the House, ruling on points of order, referring bills and resolutions to the appropriate committees, setting the agenda for House action on measures including legislation, and appointing members to select and joint committees, as well as House-Senate conference committees that must reconcile bills when dissimilar acts are passed in each house of Congress on the same subject. Although a Speaker may participate in debate and vote just as any other member of the House, by tradition he or she rarely speaks on the floor of the House, generally votes only in cases of a tie, and does not hold a seat on any House committee.
Under the terms of section 3 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment (1967), which deals with presidential disability, the Speaker of the House, along with the president pro tempore of the Senate, is designated to receive the president’s “written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” In such a case, the vice president becomes acting president until the Speaker and the president pro tempore receive “a written declaration to the contrary.” Under section 4 of the amendment, the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore are designated to receive any “written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” from “a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide.” Again, under such circumstances the vice president becomes acting president until the disability is removed. Thereafter, the Speaker, along with the president pro tempore of the Senate, is designated to receive the declaration of the president “that no inability exists.”
Like the other heads of the branches of the national government, success in the office of Speaker of the House depends to a large extent on the incumbent’s character and political abilities.
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