Speaker of the House

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

Speaker of the House

Article I, Section 2, Clause 5

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

A “Speaker of the House” has been an organic part of the Anglo-American legislative process for centuries—at least since 1377, when the Rolls of Parliament first noted it. As with his power to dissolve Parliament, the King sought to control Parliament by influencing the choice of the Speaker once Parliament was in session. During Tudor times, because the King had to consent to the nomination of the Speaker, the Tudors were able to use the threat of a veto to gain the ability to nominate the person whom the Commons would choose.

After the Tudors, the process of selecting the Speaker of the House of Commons slowly transitioned into a process completely controlled by the House. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the House of Commons fought for independent legislative power, Parliament pursued and eventually won the right to select the Speaker without hindrance from the Crown. Not since the late seventeenth century has a monarch, for political reasons, dared to challenge the House of Common’s selection of a Speaker.

Until the eighteenth century, the Speaker had much power in deciding what issues would be brought to the floor of Parliament. He also was able to interpret House proceedings and positions to the King. After Parliament gained control over the choice of Speaker, the position devolved into an umpire simply refereeing the manner of debate.

Prior to American independence, the selection of the Speaker in colonial legislative houses closely mirrored the earlier British process. Though colonial assemblies chose their speakers, the royally appointed governors sought to control the result. As trouble grew between America and Britain, the Speaker became a spokesman of the various assemblies’ positions against the actions of Parliament and the Crown’s agents, mimicking the period leading to the Glorious Revolution in England (1688).

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 drew not only on their own history but more directly 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 colonial assemblies had struggled. 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. The Speaker was now an internal House of Representatives officer, relieved of the burden of pleasing the Crown (or Executive) as a prerequisite for assuming the Speakership.

Without Constitutional specification, the Speaker of the House gained duties and powers as the issues of the day required them to be granted. The first Speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenberg, led a House of Representatives that was devoid of parties and was attempting to construct the Republican institutions of which the Constitution was the source. But even during this early stage, the Speaker obtained an important role in the first session of Congress: the ability to appoint Members of the House to committees. Later, during his time as Speaker, Henry Clay demonstrated the extraordinary power that an active Speaker could assume, skillfully filling committees to build support for the war against England in 1812.

By the early twentieth century, the Speaker, described contemporaneously as an “autocrat,” was the second most powerful person in Washington. The Speaker possessed the power to appoint members and chairmen of all committees, and he also controlled 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, the chairmen of the various committees became the center of power until the mid-1970s, when the House restored many of the Speaker’s prerogatives.

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 House also elects its 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.

David F. Forte

Professor, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law

Judith Bentley, Speakers of the House (1994) Richard S. Beth & Valerie Heitshusen, Speakers of the House: Elections 1913–2013, CRS Report RL30857 (2013)




Douglas B. Harris, The Rise of the Public Speakership, 113 Pol. Sci. Q. 193–212 (Summer 1998)

Valerie Heitshusen, The Speaker of the House: House Officer, Party Leader, and Representative, CRS Report 97-780 (2011)

Asher C. Hinds, The Speaker of the House of Representatives: Origin of the Office, Its Duties and Powers, 3 Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. (May 1909)

Dell G. Hitchner, The Speaker of the House of Representatives, 13 Parliamentary Affairs 185 (Spring 1960)

Alfred T. Zubrov, Speakers of the House 1789–2002 (2002)