This Edition for Educators highlights House Leadership. The U.S. Constitution offers spare guidance as to how House Leadership should be organized, noting only that the Membership “shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.” By the early 20th century, each of the major parties had created entire organizations to advance their legislative agendas in the House. Party leaders provide direction and plan legislative strategies, while party whips track prospective votes and maintain the pulse of their respective caucus or conference on major policy issues. House Leadership positions have grown and changed in power and complexity over time as individual Members bring different sensibilities to the roles.
Speakers of the House
The Speaker is the political and parliamentary leader of the House. The Constitution mandates the office, but the House and individual Speakers have defined its contours over time. The Speaker—who has always been (but is not required to be) a House Member and also represents a local constituency like the other 434 Members—is at the levers of power. The Speaker is simultaneously the House’s presiding officer, party leader, and the institution’s administrative head, among other duties.
Majority Leaders of the House (1899 to present)
The House of Representatives, with its large membership, has relied on Majority Leaders since the late-19th century to expedite legislative business and to keep their parties united. Initially, the Majority Leader was an appointed position, chosen by the Speaker. In modern practice, the Majority Leader is chosen by a secret ballot in the majority party conference or caucus prior to the start of a new Congress.
Minority Leaders of the House (1899 to present)
The Minority Leader serves as floor leader of the “loyal opposition,” and is the minority counterpart to the Speaker. Although many of the basic leadership responsibilities of the Minority and Majority Leaders are similar, the Minority Leader speaks for the minority party and its policies and works to protect the minority’s rights. The Minority Leader is chosen by a secret ballot of the minority party caucus or conference prior to the start of a new Congress.
The Whip provides a communications network for Members and mobilizes them for important party measures coming up for a vote. The title comes from Great Britain where the House of Commons has had party “whips” since the late 18th century. In the U.S. House, Whips have served as a two-way bridge between the leadership and the rank-and-file. Though the role of the whip and the attending organization developed differently for Democrats and Republicans, both parties rely on the vote-counting abilities of the Member in this position, elected through secret balloting of the majority or minority party conference or caucus prior to the Opening Day of each new Congress.
The Temporary Appointment of Representative Lindsay Warren as Majority Leader
On September 19, 1940, newly elected Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas named Lindsay Warren of North Carolina the temporary House Majority Leader. In the days following the death of Speaker William Bankhead of Alabama, Democrats expected a heated contest to fill the Majority Leader’s position left vacant by Rayburn’s ascension to the Speakership.
Majority Whip Hale Boggs’ Support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
On July 9, 1965, Representative Hale Boggs of Louisiana took to the House Floor to make a stirring speech in favor of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A year after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, momentum for tougher voting rights legislation built rapidly after the infamous “Bloody Sunday March” in which Alabama state troopers brutally beat peaceful civil rights protestors at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. An opponent of the 1964 civil rights legislation, Hale Boggs, the Majority Whip (1961–1971) and a die-hard Southern Democrat, supported the bill to end the use of literacy tests for five years and to make illegal voter disqualification a federal crime.
Republican Whip Albert H. Vestal of Indiana
On April 1, 1932, Representative Albert H. Vestal of Indiana died at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C. An eight-term Member, Vestal rose through the Republican Party ranks to serve as Whip. Representative Fred Purnell of Indiana remarked, “The high esteem in which he [Vestal] was held by all Members, regardless of party, was richly deserved because of the fair and friendly manner in which he met, without exception, his many duties. I dare say no Member of the House during his service had more real genuine friends than Bert Vestal.”
Minorities in Leadership Positions
As part of a series of books on woman and minorities in Congress, the Office of the Historian tracks relevant Members in party leadership. We have currently compiled charts for Women in Congress, Black Americans in Congress, and Hispanic Americans in Congress.
Deans/Fathers of the House
In the modern U.S. House of Representatives the Member with the longest continuous service is known as the “Dean of the House.” The practice of recognizing this individual—initially, and for many years, called the “Father of the House”—dates to the early nineteenth century and has changed over time.
House Leaders Meet
During the 1940s and 1950s, the parties traded control of the House several times, fostering considerable familiarity between the Democratic and Republican leadership teams. In this picture from 1956, Democratic Leaders flank the Republican Leader Charles Halleck.
Minority Leader Does Share in Test of “Spuds”
Minority Leader Bertrand Snell participated in an unusual debate in 1937. Carb-laden competitors Idaho and Maine competed to see which state produced the tastiest tuber. Snell sampled a spud during a Maine-Idaho potato contest, which unfolded in the Speaker’s Room of the House Restaurant.
Agreement on Civil Rights Bill
Senator William Knowland, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Minority Leader Joe Martin, and Senator Lyndon Johnson gathered on August 23, 1957, to announce that they had reached agreement on civil rights legislation. Leaders of both parties in the House often coordinate closely with their counterparts in the United States Senate.
Please Pass the Gavel
During his nearly four-decade career in Congress, Republican Leader Bob Michel of Illinois had only one chance to preside over the House. Ironically, his short-lived time in the Speaker’s chair came when the Democrats held the majority and because his colleague Speaker Tom Foley of Washington decided that Michel had waited long enough to wield the gavel.
Being Seen and Heard—A Tantalizing Prospect
Typically, seniority and party leadership are the best methods to make your voice heard in the crowded House of Representatives. But for these new Members, a parliamentary insult hurled at a Republican freshman had the effect of briefly banding his colleagues into a memorable (and merry) bloc.
A Mob in Search of a Speaker
During the chaotic first two weeks of the 26th Congress (1839–1841) in December 1839, three separate men presided over the House of Representatives: Clerk Hugh Garland of the previous Congress, Representative John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts in an entirely invented position, and finally Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, the youngest Speaker of the House ever to hold the office.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory