Speaker of the House
“The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”
— U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 2, clause 5
The office originated in the British House of Commons during the 14th century. The speaker had allegiances to the legislative body as well as to the sovereign: elected by the Commons, the speaker represented that body before the monarch but also served as the monarch’s representative in the Commons. This duality ended three centuries later when Speaker William Lenthall declared to Charles I that he had “neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak” except for what had been authorized by the House of Commons. While today Commons’ speakers serve primarily as non-political parliamentary traffic cops, 18th-century speakers also served as party leaders and ministers of government.
The American speakership has followed this example and is a product of politics. The Pennsylvania delegation nominated Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg to be the first Speaker since it wanted a member of its state to hold a high office, as Virginia’s George Washington became President, Massachusetts’s John Adams became Vice President, and New York’s John Jay became Chief Justice of the United States. The Pennsylvania delegation also wanted to locate the nation’s capital in Pennsylvania and thought the Speaker would be well-positioned to lead that campaign. Muhlenberg, who served two non-consecutive terms in the Speaker’s chair, however, failed in that task.
The Rise of the Speaker
While Speakers were always regional or party leaders, they lacked national prominence until Henry Clay of Kentucky took the chair in the 12th Congress (1811–1813). Elected in his first term in the House, Clay was already a national luminary, having previously served as a U.S. Senator and as speaker of the Kentucky state house. Clay championed national policies over regional ones, and he effectively coupled the institutional tools of the speakership with his personal charisma, raising the stature of the House. Clay noted that “delicate and perplexing” demands were placed on the Speaker, and “especially require of him in those moments of agitation from which no deliberative assembly is always entirely exempt, to remain cool and unshaken amidst all the storms of debate, carefully guarding the preservation of the permanent laws and rules of the House from being sacrificed to temporary passions, prejudices, or interests.”
The Political Speaker
The power of the Speaker expanded as the party system better developed after the Civil War. Until 1911, the Speaker had the sole authority to appoint Members to House standing committees. The Speaker also chaired the House Rules Committee, which controlled the flow of legislation to the floor. In response to minority filibusters, Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine streamlined the House’s standing rules to prune dilatory tactics and to push the Republican Party’s policy agenda. But as Reed was quick to point out, he was successful in making the House a majoritarian body because the majority of the body—all members of his party—supported his reforms. “The approval of the House is the very breath in the nostrils of the Speaker,” he said.
The strong speakership, though, had its detractors. Speaker Joseph Cannon of Illinois, known as “Uncle Joe” to his friends and “Czar Cannon” to his enemies, tightly controlled access to the floor via the Rules Committee and through committee appointments. But in 1910, rank-and-file Members launched a revolt against Cannon and amended House rules to rein in the powers of the Speaker. One frustrated Representative said the speakership under Cannon was “not a product of the Constitution” and the Speaker was not “entitled to be the political and legislative dictator” of the House. Cannon, in his self-defense, said he was simply implementing his party’s agenda that the American people chose. Speakers, he said, would have to sacrifice popularity to be effective. “It is as easy to find a certain kind of popularity as it is to pick up pebbles on a stony beach, and the one is worth just about as much as the other,” he said.
The Modern Speaker
After the era of strong Speakers, committee chairs reasserted influence in the chamber, forcing later Speakers to change how they used the office. In the middle of the 20th century, the longest-serving Speaker in House history, Sam Rayburn of Texas, took the exact opposite stance as Cannon. “The old days of pounding on the desk and giving people hell are gone,” Rayburn said. “A man’s got to lead by persuasion and kindness and the best reason—that’s the only way he can lead people.” Later, larger party organizations wielded the greatest power. When 1970s reforms limited committee power, the authority of House Speakers re-emerged as the coordination and timing of legislation gained greater importance. Power flowed back to the House Floor from committee rooms.
For further information, see the Speakers of the House Resources.