Speaker of the House is a very familiar title to Americans. Being that the position is the third highest-ranking in the country, the names of past speakers are almost as easy to recall as the Presidents that they served with. And with the unprecedented removal of Kevin McCarthy from the position of House Speaker, there has been more attention on the seat than ever. But it might be helpful to take a look at the responsibilities of the Speaker to understand why the position is so important.
Electing a Speaker
Electing a new Speaker is the first order of business for the House of Representatives when a new session begins. While the Constitution does not explicitly state that the Speaker must be a member of the House, that is the historical precedent. Writings from early American leaders seem to indicate that a House member was always intended to be elected to the position. One example is from Tench Coxe, a delegate from Pennsylvania to the Congress of the Confederation. He writes: “ The house of representatives is not, as the Senate, to have a president chosen for them from without their body, but are to elect their speaker from their own number…”
( Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States, pg 144 ).
The new Speaker is decided by a simple majority vote of those present. Generally, it is a party-line split of votes, with the majority party having one of their own elected to the position. While each representative may vote for whomever they wish, it would be politically dangerous to cast a vote for the other party’s frontrunner.
Once the new Speaker is decided upon, they are escorted to the dais to be sworn in. The gavel is ceremoniously transferred to the new House leader, representing a peaceful turnover of power. The new Speaker immediately begins executing the duties assigned to the position.
1. Setting the legislative agenda
The House Speaker is the one who manages the agenda for the proceedings of the House of Representatives. They control which bills are prioritized over others, which is hugely influential in shaping the direction Congress moves. They decide what issues are emphasized by the House. As you can imagine, each different Speaker will place emphasis on the areas that they believe are most important. This means that there will be vast differences in the way Congress operates under different Speakers.
2. Assigning members to committees
This responsibility is one that will have a huge impact on the flow of legislation. It is important that each committee includes experts on their respective groups. It is important that each committe, while also including members with differing opinions to make sure all angles are considered.
3. Assigning bills to each committee
This is a task that should not be under-appreciated. Just like assigning the correct members to a committee, assigning bills to the most fitting committee is an important issue. The legislative process will run most smoothly when House members are able to review the legislation that best fits their expertise. Assigning bills to committees not well suited to them will be very inefficient.
4. Third in line to become President of the United States
While a Speaker of the House has never become President by succession, this is an important consideration. Should the President and Vice President become unable to serve in the role, the Speaker of the House would succeed the position of President. It is important that the person in this role is capable of stepping up in case of emergency.
The Speaker of the House plays a pivotal role in the U.S. government, wielding significant authority over the legislative process and serving as a key figure in American politics. Their duties range from presiding over the House to setting the legislative agenda. They have great influence over the direction of our legislation. Understanding this should make it clear why the debate over who should fill the role is such an important one.