Party leadership in the House of Representatives plays an important role in the legislative process. Although the Constitution outlines few leadership structures for the chamber, norms and precedents have created a complex system for party leadership. Leadership in the House of Representatives is structured to manage and organize the diverse interests of the parties through building consensus on legislation, promoting electoral interests and setting the policy agenda.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives is the only specific leadership position in the chamber created in the Constitution. Article 1, Section 2 states that “the House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and Officials” (U.S. Const. art. I § 2). Although the Constitution does not specify that the Speaker be an elected member of Congress, the House has never chosen anyone outside of the institution. The Constitution leaves out any mention of party leadership or the structure of that leadership. Political parties are also never articulated in the document (Smith, Roberts & Wielen 2009, p.122). The Constitution also specifies that the Speaker is the third in line of succession to the Presidency, although the situation has never arisen where the Presidency and Vice Presidency were both vacated. The election of the Speaker is the first vote that members cast at the beginning of each two-year session. The following video shows the beginning of the vote that elected Nancy Pelosi as the first woman Speaker of the House in 2007.
The Speaker fulfills many roles as both a legislative actor and leader of the majority party. Although the Speaker is not given any special legislative power in the Constitution, House rules and precedents give the Speaker influence over the procedures of the chamber (Smith et al. 2009, p.137). The Speaker’s control and influence can often affect the outcome of bills. For example, the Speaker ultimately decides which committees legislation is referred to and holds the power to schedule time on the floor for legislative action. These discretionary powers can advance or inhibit the passage of bills (Smith et al. 2009, p.138). The Speaker is also the highest elected official of the majority party in the House (Oleszek 2011, p.22). The Speaker is tasked with setting the agenda for the legislative session and promoting the party’s goals through daily news conferences and other media appearances. The Speaker also has the authority to choose the members of each committee, as well as, remove them if they are not following the instructions of the party leadership (Smith et al. 2009, p.137). The Speaker is an important policy actor in the House of Representatives.
The power and influence of the Speaker can and has changed as different representatives have been elected to the position. For example, the power and role of the Speaker has increased in the last few decades. Speaker James Wright was one of the first to expand the Speaker’s influence. From 1987-1989, Speaker Wright played a prominent role in the legislative process by working with committees to address many domestic issues that were important to the majority party (Smith et al. 2009, p.139). His successor, Speaker Thomas Foley, took it a step further by using “an impressive array of formal and informal powers” during his tenure (Oleszek 2011, p.370). Speaker Newt Gingrich, who rose to power following the 1994 elections, increased the role of the Speaker more than any of his predecessors. He not only exerted greater influence in setting the policy agenda, but he also took a greater interest in selecting committee leaders and members, along with the actions of those committees (Smith et al. 2009, pgs.139-140). The role of the Speaker can and has changed with each congressional session.
While the Speaker acts as the leader for the chamber, the parties also create and justify leadership positions in order to meet the needs of the members. As mentioned previously, outside of the Speaker, the Constitution does not elaborate on the leadership structure for the House of Representatives. These positions and responsibilities are the result of norms and precedents that guide current procedure, which have been established during the history of chamber (Oleszek 2011, p.18). Leadership positions, such as the majority and minority leaders, function to serve the members of the House.
One of the expected jobs of the leadership is to control and manage the message of the party through the media. Controlling public perception “is a central leadership responsibility in the modern Congress” (Smith et al. 2009, p.133). How legislation and the policy agenda are perceived is important for drawing support and ultimately winning congressional elections. Party leaders in the House must build the image for the party because not every member of the chamber has the same access to media resources (Smith et al. 2009, p.123). Party leaders can also use media as an incentive to their delegation. They can reward members of their party by giving certain legislation media attention or acknowledging a representative at a press conference (Smith et al. 2009, p.153). Party leaders must use media in order to serve the interests of their members.
Party leadership positions also work to support candidates in congressional elections. Party leaders must utilize resources, such as political action committees, in order to generate contributions for their members because fundraising is crucial to winning elections. In addition to direct fundraising, party leadership can raise support by attending events for candidates (Smith et al. 2009, p.151). The ultimate goal for party leaders is to gain or increase a majority in the House of Representatives. If the party suffers setbacks in congressional elections, the leadership can often be switched out. For example, Speaker Gingrich was forced out of power after Republican losses in the 1998 elections (Smith et al. 2009, p.125). Members of the party delegation expect the leadership to facilitate electoral gains.
The majority and minority leader seek to serve the members of their party by not only fulfilling these tasks, but also building consensus on legislation. Their main responsibility is to manage the operations on the floor of the chamber. The majority leader is the second in command to the Speaker of the House and works with the Speaker to bring legislation to the floor. Additionally, an important responsibility of the majority leader is to make sure legislation is approved when it is called for a vote (Smith et al. 2009, p.142). Members of the party “expect their leaders to use those tools to engineer passage of legislation” (Sinclair 2012, p.145). The minority leader has many of the same responsibilities of the majority leader. The minority leader serves as the party and floor leader for the opposing party (Oleszek 2011, p.23). They work as the spokesperson for the minority by providing policy alternatives to the majority agenda. The minority leader gives weekly briefings with the media addressing these positions. In the video below, minority leader Nancy Pelosi details the Democrat’s stance on some of the issues facing the House for the week of November 3rd.
Like the majority leader, the minority leader must also ensure that the party is unified on legislation (Smith et al. 2009, p.142). The majority and minority leader work to build party unity and manage the floor operations of the House of Representatives.
In addition to the majority and minority leaders, both parties use whips in order gather votes to achieve legislative goals. Whips are depended on to not only lobby and convince members to vote for party initiatives, but they must also know the location of representatives when an important bill comes to the floor for a vote. For example, Democratic whips played an important role in securing votes for the passage of health care reform in 2010 by working with undecided members and advocating the party leadership’s position (Sinclair 2012, p.196). In order to reach more factions of the party, whips are appointed from different areas of the country and can have varying sets of beliefs and values (Oleszek 2011, p.23). Although Democrats and Republicans each elect a chief deputy whip, they employ different systems for utilizing the whips. Democrats use a larger system of whips compared to Republicans, in order to give members more opportunities to work with the party leadership. Serving as a whip can also be a stepping stone to future leadership positions in the House (Smith et al. 2009, p.143). Whips work with the majority and minority leaders to ensure legislative outcomes.
Other party organizations in the House of Representatives look to support the leadership in different ways. Two important structures are the House Republican Conference and the House Democratic Caucus. While the two groups are referred to by different names, they serve the same purpose for each party. Congressional caucuses are meetings with all of the members in the chamber of a specific party, where policy strategies are assessed. Leaders are chosen for each caucus by the members of the party (Smith et al. 2009, p.129). Policy, campaign and steering committees also serve an important purpose for each party. Policy committees help craft important legislation in the House, while campaign committees are tasked with raising money and supporting congressional candidates. Party leaders also use steering committees to make appointments to committees (Smith et al. 2009, p.130). These structures in the House help the party leadership manage their members and achieve party objectives.
Leadership organizations and structures in the House are not static. New positions can be created to meet the needs of the party. For example, after the Democrats lost the majority in the 2010 elections, both Rep. Steny Hoyer and Rep. James Clyburn looked to fill the position of minority whip. In order to avoid a potential clash in the party delegation, Rep. Clyburn was elected to a new position, “assistant minority leader,” and Rep. Hoyer was elected minority whip (Allen, 2010). The video below shows Rep. Clyburn talking about his new position.
The Constitution gives little detail to the leadership structure of the House of Representatives. Leadership positions have emerged over time so that party leaders could meet the demands of the members. Party leadership in the House is created and utilized in order to build consensus on legislation, promote electoral interests and set the policy agenda.
Allen, J. (2010). ‘Assistant Leader’ for Jim Clyburn. Retrieved from
Oleszek, W. J. (2011). Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. Washington,
D.C.: CQ Press.
Sinclair, S. (2012). Unorthodox Lawmaking; New Legislative Processes in the U.S.
Congress. Washington D.C.: CQ Press.
Smith, S.S., Roberts, J.M., Wielen, R.J.V. (2009). The American Congress. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
U.S. Constitution, Art. 1, Sec. 2