Speaker of the United States House of Representatives

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The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives is the presiding officer of the lower house of Congress, the House of Representatives. The current Speaker is Dennis Hastert, a Republican Congressman from Illinois, whose term will expire at the end of the 109th Congress on January 3, 2007. On November 16, Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, was nominated by her party to be Speaker of the House for the 110th Congress; she would then be the first woman to hold the office. The formal election for Speaker of the House will occur when the new Congress convenes in January 2007. Since Democrats control the chamber, this election is merely a formality.

The office of Speaker was created by the Constitution of the United States. The Speaker is elected by the House of Representatives, and is its highest-ranking officer. Although the Constitution does not require the Speaker to also be a member of the House, the Speaker has always been a Representative. In practice, the Speaker is always a member of the majority party, and is that party's leader, outranking the House Majority Leader. In the Presidential Line of Succession, the Speaker is second in the line, after the Vice President of the United States and before the President Pro Tempore of the United States Senate.

The Speaker of the House does not normally personally preside over debates, instead delegating the duty to other members of Congress. 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 office of Speaker is specifically created by the written text of the Constitution of the United States ( Article I, Section 2). The first Speaker was Frederick Muhlenberg, who was elected when the House first assembled in 1789. 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, Speaker Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams instead of Andrew Jackson, thereby ensuring the former's victory.

Henry Clay used his influence as Speaker to ensure the passage of measures he favored.
Henry Clay used his influence as Speaker to ensure the passage of measures he favored.

After 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 Speakership contest 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, and 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.

Joseph Gurney Cannon is often considered the most powerful Speaker in the history of the House.
Joseph Gurney Cannon is often considered the most powerful Speaker in the history of the House.

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 twentieth 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 due to 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 due to his public opposition to the policies of President Ronald Reagan. 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, has played a much less prominent role.

In the General Election of 2006, the Democrats won majority of the House. It is all but certain that Nancy Pelosi, the current House Minority Leader, will become the Speaker when the 110th Congress convenes on January 3, 2007, making her the first female Speaker in the history of the United States.


Article One of the United States Constitution provides, "The House of Representatives shall chuse [ sic] their Speaker and other Officers..." The Speaker has always been a member of the House of Representatives. The text of the Constitution does not make this a requirement, however, and some legal writers have wondered if the House could elect a nonmember as Speaker. (Occasional votes have been cast for persons other than sitting Representatives in speakership elections, and they were counted, though this is not a meaningful precedent since whether these votes were counted would not have affected the result.) Speakers are elected following each biennial general election and serve two-year terms. A new Speaker is also elected if the Speakership becomes vacant during a Congress due to death or resignation.

At the beginning of each new term of Congress (January in each odd-numbered year), the Clerk of the House of Representatives presides over the election of a Speaker. Before the election, the congressional conference of each major party (Democratic or Republican) nominates a candidate; the conference chairman delivers a nomination speech on the day of the election. Thereafter, the Clerk calls the roll of the House; when a member's name is called, the member verbally announces his or her vote. (Originally, the Speaker was elected by secret ballot; in 1839, however, it was decided to adopt the voice vote.) Members are not required to vote for one of the nominees; they may vote for an individual who was not previously nominated, if they please. However, a member who does not vote for his or her party's nominee may be punished by the party leadership, possibly losing committee assignments. Therefore, members very rarely fail to vote for the candidates nominated by their parties.

Once all members have cast their votes, the Clerk announces the result. In order to be elected, a candidate must receive a simple majority of those voting (not necessarily a simple majority of the total membership of the House). If no candidate receives the requisite majority, the House repeats the procedure until a Speaker is elected. Normally, a single call of the roll suffices, and the election is completed on the first day of the session. After announcing the result, the Clerk appoints a committee of members to formally escort the Speaker to the presiding officer's chair. The Speaker is then sworn in by the Dean of the House (the most senior member). The same procedure for election is used if a Speaker dies or resigns.

Notable elections

Historically, there have been several controversial elections to the Speakership, such as the contest of 1839. In that case, even though the House convened on December 2, it could not begin the Speakership election until December 14 because of an election dispute in New Jersey known as the " Broad Seal War". Two rival delegations—one Whig and another Democratic—had been certified as elected by different branches of the New Jersey government. The problem was compounded because the result of the dispute would determine whether the Whigs or the Democrats held the majority. Neither party agreed to permit a Speakership election with the opposite party's delegation participating. Finally, it was agreed to exclude both delegations from the election; a Speaker was finally chosen on December 17.

Another, more prolonged fight occurred in 1855. The two primary candidates were the Republican Nathaniel Prentiss Banks and the Democrat William Aiken. However, there were nineteen other candidates; thus, neither of the main candidates could achieve a majority. The House remained deadlocked for two months, before it adopted a special resolution allowing a speaker to be chosen by a plurality, instead of an absolute majority. Hence, Banks was finally elected on the 133rd vote.

The House found itself in the same dilemma in 1859, again enduring an election that lasted for two months. Throughout, voting was interspersed with speeches by the members, and the Clerk proved unwilling to interfere. On the 54th ballot, the House finally agreed to elect the dark horse candidate William Pennington. Ironically, Pennington had been the New Jersey governor who certified the disputed Whig candidates during the earlier Broad Seal War controversy.

The last Speakership election in which the House had to vote more than once occurred in 1923. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate could muster a majority because many members of the Progressive Party (a minor third party) voted for other candidates. The Republican leadership agreed to a number of procedural reforms and to the appointment of Progressives to certain committees; in return, the Progressives ensured the election of Republican Frederick H. Gillett as Speaker.

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 whip, Dennis Hastert, was chosen to serve as Speaker.

As a result of the Democrats' impending majority, Nancy Pelosi was unanimously elected by the Democrats as the Speaker-designate on November 16, 2006. She will be the first woman to be second in line of succession to the presidency.

Partisan role

The Speaker is the head of the majority party in the House of Representatives, outranking the Majority Leader. 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, the current Speaker, Dennis Hastert, has 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 can be seen as the "leader of the opposition," the symbol of his or her party, and 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) and Newt Gingrich (who fought a bitter battle with President Bill Clinton for control of domestic policy).

Presiding officer

The Speaker holds a variety of powers as the presiding officer of the House of Representatives, but normally delegates them to another member of the majority party. The Speaker may designate any Member of the House to act as Speaker pro tempore and preside over the House. During important debates, the Speaker pro tempore is ordinarily a senior member of the majority party who may be chosen for his or her skill in presiding. At other times, more junior members may be assigned to preside to give them experience with the rules and procedures of the House. The Speaker may also designate a Speaker pro tempore for special purposes; for example, during long recesses, a Representative whose district is near Washington, D.C. may be designated as Speaker pro tempore for the purpose of signing enrolled bills.

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).

Other functions

Because joint sessions and meetings of both houses of Congress are held in the Hall of the House of Representatives, the Speaker presides over all such joint sessions and meetings, except that under the Twelfth Amendment and 3 U.S.C.  § 15, the President of the Senate presides over joint sessions of Congress assembled to count electoral votes and declare the results of a presidential election. The distinction arises because the Twelfth Amendment explicitly provides: "The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the [electoral vote] certificates."

The Speaker is also responsible for overseeing the officers of the House — the Clerk, the Sergeant-at-Arms, the Chief Administrative Officer, and the Chaplain. The Speaker holds the power to 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 as well.

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.

To date, the implementation of the Presidential Succession Act has never been necessary; thus, no Speaker has ever succeeded to the Presidency. 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 due to 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.

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 congressional district. However, as noted above, the Speaker does not normally vote or participate in debate.

List of Speakers

This is a complete ( as of 2006) list of Speakers, ordered chronologically.

# Speaker Party State or District Congress Start of service ↑ End of service
1 Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg Pro-Administration Pennsylvania-1 1st April 1, 1789 March 4, 1791
2 Jonathan Trumbull, Jr. Connecticut-4 2nd October 24, 1791 March 4, 1793
3 Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg Anti-Administration Pennsylvania 3rd December 2, 1793 March 4, 1795
4 Jonathan Dayton Federalist New Jersey-AL 4th December 7, 1795 March 4, 1797
5th May 15, 1797 March 4, 1799
5 Theodore Sedgwick Massachusetts-1 6th December 2, 1799 March 4, 1801
6 Nathaniel Macon Democratic-Republican North Carolina-5 7th December 7, 1801 March 4, 1803
North Carolina-6 8th October 17, 1803 March 4, 1805
9th December 2, 1805 March 4, 1807
7 Joseph Bradley Varnum Massachusetts-4 10th October 26, 1807 March 4, 1809
11th May 22, 1809 March 4, 1811
8 Henry Clay Kentucky-5 12th November 4, 1811 March 4, 1813
Kentucky-2 13th May 24, 1813 January 19, 1814
9 Langdon Cheves South Carolina January 19, 1814 March 4, 1815
10 Henry Clay Kentucky-2 14th December 4, 1815 March 4, 1817
15th December 1, 1817 March 4, 1819
16th December 6, 1819 October 28, 1820
11 John W. Taylor New York November 15, 1820 March 4, 1821
12 Philip Pendleton Barbour Virginia 17th December 4, 1821 March 4, 1823
13 Henry Clay Kentucky-3 18th December 1, 1823 March 4, 1825
14 John W. Taylor New York 19th December 5, 1825 March 4, 1827
15 Andrew Stevenson Jacksonian Virginia 20th December 3, 1827 March 4, 1829
21st December 7, 1829 March 4, 1831
22nd December 5, 1831 March 4, 1833
16 John Bell Whig Tennessee 23rd June 2, 1834 March 4, 1835
17 James Polk Democratic Tennessee 24th December 7, 1835 March 4, 1837
25th September 4, 1837 March 4, 1839
18 Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter Whig Virginia 26th December 16, 1839 March 4, 1841
19 John White Kentucky-9 27th May 31, 1841 March 4, 1843
20 John Winston Jones Democratic Virginia 28th December 4, 1843 March 4, 1845
21 John Wesley Davis Indiana 29th December 1, 1845 March 4, 1847
22 Robert Charles Winthrop Whig Massachusetts-1 30th December 6, 1847 March 4, 1849
23 Howell Cobb Democratic Georgia 31st December 22, 1849 March 4, 1851
24 Linn Boyd Kentucky-1 32nd December 1, 1851 March 4, 1853
33rd December 5, 1853 March 4, 1855
25 Nathaniel Prentice Banks American/ Republican Massachusetts-7 34th February 2, 1856 March 4, 1857
26 James Lawrence Orr Democratic South Carolina 35th December 7, 1857 March 4, 1859
27 William Pennington Republican New Jersey-5 36th February 1, 1860 March 4, 1861
28 Galusha A. Grow Pennsylvania-14 37th July 4, 1861 March 4, 1863
29 Schuyler Colfax Indiana 38th December 7, 1863 March 4, 1865
39th December 4, 1865 March 4, 1867
40th March 4, 1867 March 4, 1869
30 Theodore Medad Pomeroy New York March 3, 1869 March 4, 1869
31 James G. Blaine Maine 41st March 4, 1869 March 4, 1871
42nd March 4, 1871 March 4, 1873
43rd December 1, 1873 March 4, 1875
32 Michael C. Kerr Democratic Indiana 44th December 6, 1875 August 19, 1876
33 Samuel J. Randall Pennsylvania-3 December 4, 1876 March 4, 1877
45th October 15, 1877 March 4, 1879
46th March 18, 1879 March 4, 1881
34 J. Warren Keifer Republican Ohio 47th December 5, 1881 March 4, 1883
35 John Griffin Carlisle Democratic Kentucky-6 48th December 3, 1883 March 4, 1885
49th December 7, 1885 March 4, 1887
50th December 5, 1887 March 4, 1889
36 Thomas Brackett Reed Republican Maine 51st December 2, 1889 March 4, 1891
37 Charles Frederick Crisp Democratic Georgia 52nd December 8, 1891 March 4, 1893
53rd August 7, 1893 March 4, 1895
38 Thomas Brackett Reed Republican Maine 54th December 2, 1895 March 4, 1897
55th March 15, 1897 March 4, 1899
39 David B. Henderson Iowa 56th December 4, 1899 March 4, 1901
57th December 2, 1901 March 4, 1903
40 Joseph Gurney Cannon Illinois 58th November 9, 1903 March 4, 1905
59th December 4, 1905 March 4, 1907
60th December 2, 1907 March 4, 1909
61st March 15, 1909 March 4, 1911
41 Champ Clark Democratic Missouri 62nd April 4, 1911 March 4, 1913
63rd April 7, 1913 March 4, 1915
64th December 6, 1915 March 4, 1917
65th April 2, 1917 March 4, 1919
42 Frederick Gillett Republican Massachusetts-2 66th May 19, 1919 March 4, 1921
67th April 11, 1921 March 4, 1923
68th December 3, 1923 March 4, 1925
43 Nicholas Longworth Ohio 69th December 7, 1925 March 4, 1927
70th December 5, 1927 March 4, 1929
71st April 15, 1929 March 4, 1931
44 John Nance Garner Democratic Texas-15 72nd December 7, 1931 March 4, 1933
45 Henry T. Rainey Illinois 73rd March 9, 1933 August 19, 1934
46 Joseph Wellington Byrns Tennessee 74th January 3, 1935 June 4, 1936
47 William Brockman Bankhead Alabama-6 June 4, 1936 January 3, 1937
75th January 5, 1937 January 3, 1939
76th January 3, 1939 September 15, 1940
48 Sam Rayburn Texas-4 September 16, 1940 January 3, 1941
77th January 3, 1941 January 3, 1943
78th January 6, 1943 January 3, 1945
79th January 3, 1945 January 3, 1947
49 Joseph William Martin, Jr. Republican Massachusetts-14 80th January 3, 1947 January 3, 1949
50 Sam Rayburn Democratic Texas-4 81st January 3, 1949 January 3, 1951
82nd January 3, 1951 January 3, 1953
51 Joseph William Martin, Jr. Republican Massachusetts-14 83rd January 3, 1953 January 3, 1955
52 Sam Rayburn Democratic Texas-4 84th January 3, 1955 January 3, 1957
85th January 3, 1957 January 3, 1959
86th January 7, 1959 January 3, 1961
87th January 3, 1961 November 16, 1961
53 John McCormack Massachusetts-12 January 10, 1962 January 3, 1963
Massachusetts-9 88th January 9, 1963 January 3, 1965
89th January 4, 1965 January 3, 1967
90th January 10, 1967 January 3, 1969
91st January 3, 1969 January 3, 1971
54 Carl Albert Oklahoma-3 92nd January 21, 1971 January 3, 1973
93rd January 3, 1973 January 3, 1975
94th January 14, 1975 January 3, 1977
55 Tip O'Neill Massachusetts-8 95th January 4, 1977 January 3, 1979
96th January 15, 1979 January 3, 1981
97th January 5, 1981 January 3, 1983
98th January 3, 1983 January 3, 1985
99th January 3, 1985 January 3, 1987
56 Jim Wright Texas-12 100th January 6, 1987 January 3, 1989
101st January 3, 1989 June 6, 1989
57 Tom Foley Washington-5 June 6, 1989 January 3, 1991
102nd January 3, 1991 January 3, 1993
103rd January 5, 1993 January 3, 1995
58 Newt Gingrich Republican Georgia-6 104th January 4, 1995 January 3, 1997
105th January 7, 1997 January 3, 1999
59 Dennis Hastert lllinois-14 106th January 6, 1999 January 3, 2001
107th January 3, 2001 January 3, 2003
108th January 7, 2003 January 3, 2005
109th January 3, 2005 incumbent

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