Civics 101: The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

J. H. Osborne • Jan 7, 2019 at 2:10 PM

This week in Civics 101 we revisit a current hot topic: the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

• Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states: “The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers. ...”

• The speaker is the political and parliamentary leader of the House. The Constitution mandates the office, but since the early 19th century the House and the individual speakers have continually redefined its contours. Rooted in British parliamentary practice, the early speakers limited their roles to presiding over the House and serving as its ceremonial head.

• Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was elected the first speaker of the House on April 1, 1789.

• Over time, some speakers aggressively pursued a policy agenda for the House while others have, in the words of Speaker Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, “come to this chair to administer [the] rules, but not as a partisan.”

• Regardless, the speaker — who has always been (but is not required to be) a House member with the same obligations to his or her constituents 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.

• The speaker is elected at the beginning of a new Congress by a majority of the representatives-elect from candidates separately chosen by the majority- and minority-party caucuses.

• The speaker of the House is by law second in line to succeed the president, after the vice president, and the 25th Amendment makes the speaker a part of the process announcing presidential disability.

• The current speaker, the Honorable Nancy Pelosi, became the first woman to hold the office on Jan. 4, 2007 and served until 2011. She was elected to the post for the second time on Thursday.

• Seven individuals have served non-consecutively: Muhlenberg, Henry Clay of Kentucky, John W. Taylor of New York, Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, Sam Rayburn of Texas, Joseph Martin of Massachusetts and Pelosi.

• The longest term: Samuel Rayburn of Texas held the office for a total of 17 years, two months and two days.

• The shortest term: Elected as a sign of respect by his colleagues on March 3, 1869, Theodore M. Pomeroy of New York served for the closing day of the 40th Congress (1867–1869).

• Longest election: After more than two months and 133 ballots, Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts was elected Speaker on Feb. 2, 1856.

Source: The United States House of Representatives (www.house.gov).