The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives is the presiding officer 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 Speaker of the House of Commons in the British Parliament, the Speaker of the House is a position of leadership in the majority party and actively works to set that party's legislative agenda. Also unlike the British counterpart, 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.
The Speaker is elected on the first day of a new session of Congress. The election is presided over by the Clerk of the House of Representatives and each party nominates a candidate. Whoever receives a simple majority of the votes is elected and, after election, is sworn in by the Dean of the House, the chamber's longest-serving member. There is no requirement in the Constitution that the speaker must also be a current member of the House of Representatives to serve as speaker; however, every speaker elected has also been an elected representative.
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 do not 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 and refused to appoint him to any congressional committee.
The first Speaker was Frederick Muhlenberg, who was elected as a Federalist for the first four U.S. Congresses. The position of Speaker was not a very influential one, however, until the tenure of Henry Clay (1811–1814, 1815–1820, and 1823–1825). In contrast with many of his predecessors, Clay participated in several debates, and used his influence to procure the passage of measures he supported—for instance, the declaration of the War of 1812, and various laws relating to Clay's "American System". Furthermore, when no candidate received an Electoral College majority in the 1824 presidential election causing the president to be decided by the House, Speaker Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams instead of Andrew Jackson, thereby ensuring the former's victory. Following Clay's retirement in 1825, the power of the Speakership once again began to decline; at the same time, however, Speakership elections became increasingly bitter. As the Civil War approached, several sectional factions nominated their own candidates, often making it difficult for any candidate to attain a majority. In 1855 and again in 1859, for example, the contest for Speaker lasted for two months before the House achieved a result. Speakers tended to have very short tenures; for example, from 1839 to 1863 there were eleven Speakers, only one of whom served for more than one term.
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.
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