Speaker of the House

The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers....

Article I, Section 2, Clause 5

A "Speaker of the House" has been an organic part of the Anglo-American legislative process for centuries. The British House of Commons elects its Speaker, but the Crown, at least formally, must approve of the selection. Prior to independence, colonial assemblies also had speakers, but the royally appointed governors maintained control over the elective process.

Under Article IX of the Articles of Confederation (1781), the Congress of the United States had the power "to appoint one of their number to preside, provided that no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years." At the Constitutional Convention, however, the Framers undoubtedly drew on the model of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which provided that "the House of Representatives...shall choose their own Speaker, appoint their own officers, and settle the rules and order of proceeding in their own House." The language in the Massachusetts Constitution emphasizing "their own" was to declare the legislature free from the kind of gubernatorial control under which state legislatures had labored during the colonial period. The more succinct language of Article I, Section 2, Clause 5, of the Constitution carried the same meaning and clearly established the House's power to choose its leadership free from the executive and Senate power conferred in the Recess Appointments Clause of Article II, Section 2, Clause 3.

The House of Representatives elects its Speaker as the first order of business at the start of each two-year term or when a Speaker dies or resigns during the legislative term. The practice is customary, for it occurs before the House formally adopts its rules of procedure for the legislative term. Until 1839, the House elected the Speaker by ballot, but since that time the election has been by roll call. The party caucuses, however, predetermine the result by meeting and selecting the candidates to be voted upon. The successful candidate must obtain a majority of the votes cast. Only when party discipline breaks down, or a third party has sufficient strength, is there the possibility for multiple ballots. In 1923, for example, when the Progressive Party held a number of seats, the House took nine ballots before electing Frederick Gillett, a Republican.

Unlike British practice and unlike the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, the Speaker of the House is the primary legislative leader of the body. As the leader of the majority party, the Speaker declares and defends the legislative agenda of the majority party. However, the Speaker traditionally refrains from debating or voting in most circumstances and does not sit on any standing committees in the House. The Constitution does not state the duties of the Speaker, and the role of the Speaker has largely been shaped by traditions and customs that evolved over time. During much of the nineteenth century, the Speaker possessed enormous power, including the power to appoint members and chairmen of all committees and to control the timing and content of bills brought before the House. But in a Republican revolt against Speaker Joseph Cannon in 1910, the Speaker's power was reduced, and chairmen came to be appointed primarily by reason of seniority. Thereafter, power within the House was concentrated within the chairmen of the committees until the mid-1970s, when the House restored many of the Speaker's powers.

The House also elects other officers such as the Clerk, Sergeant-at-Arms, Chief Administrative Officer, and Chaplain, whereas the Speaker appoints the Historian of the House, the General Counsel, and the Inspector General.

Profile photo of David F. Forte
David F. Forte
Professor of Law
Cleveland-Marshall College of Law