Take Me to Your Leader
Without strict leadership and discipline, little would get accomplished in a body with 435 disparate members, so leadership positions play a critical role in the function and operation of the House of Representatives.
Congressional leadership is organized by party. Congressional leaders serve an important function within the institution (as parliamentarians) as well as “outside” the House in their efforts to recruit candidates, advocate policy positions in the media, raise money, and provide long-term political and policy strategy.
Speaker of the House
The Speaker of the House is the most powerful and visible member of the House of Representatives. It is the only House leadership position specifically accounted for in the Constitution. The Speaker stands third in line in presidential succession.
The Speaker is nominated by a majority of his party's caucus or membership in the House (the nomination is usually unanimous) at the beginning of each two-year session of Congress, and is formally elected by a straight-party vote of the entire House of Representatives. Rarely do members of the minority party cast a vote for the opposing party's Speaker designee.
Must the Speaker of the House be a member of the House of Representatives?
The Constitution does not specifically provide that the Speaker of the House be a member of Congress, although nobody outside of the chamber has ever held the position.
The Speaker derives much of his power from the sheer force of his personality and the knowledge of House procedures. In addition, the Speaker has the institutional powers to do the following:
Determine committee assignments
Preside over the House
Decide on points of order and interpret the rules
Refer legislation to the appropriate committees
Set the agenda and schedule legislative action
Coordinate policy agenda with Senate leadership
Depending on party affiliation, a strong Speaker can be the best friend or worst enemy of the White House when it comes to enacting the president's legislative agenda. Democratic Speaker Tom Foley was an effective foil to President George H. W. Bush; he was widely credited with forcing the president to renege on his “no new taxes” pledge. Similarly, Republican Newt Gingrich was a formidable adversary to President Clinton, particularly on issues such as welfare reform, tax cuts, and balancing the budget. As they did with committee chairmanships, the House Republicans have limited the Speaker's position to four terms.
Majority and Minority Leaders
The majority leader is the principal deputy to the Speaker of the House, and the floor leader of the majority party. He is elected by a secret ballot of his party's caucus at the beginning of each two-year session of Congress. His primary function is to foster unity and cohesion among the majority members, and assist the Speaker in setting the agenda, scheduling debate, and monitoring the legislative process. Often, the majority leader is considered next in line to serve as Speaker of the House, although this is not always the case.
Although usually conducted in secret behind closed doors, House leadership races can be fierce and acrimonious contests. In 2003, Harold Ford of Tennessee, considered by many a rising star within the Democratic Party, upset party elders with his insurgency campaign for minority leader. Because Ford was only thirty-two years old, some considered his candidacy premature.
The minority leader is the leader of the opposition party in the House. His function is similar to that of majority leader — to maintain unity within the ranks. Often, the minority leader will work closely with the Speaker and majority leader on scheduling floor debate, recognizing members who wish to speak on the House floor, and determining the rules for particular pieces of legislation, although he doesn't have institutional powers to do any of these. The minority leader will sometimes use procedural maneuvers and delaying tactics to “gum up” the legislative process in an effort to win concessions, make a point, seek compromise, or simply gain the attention of his counterparts.
Both the majority and minority leadership rely on “whips” — deputies who are responsible for maintaining party loyalty and “counting heads” on key votes. Whips are also elected by secret ballot, and are notorious for exerting pressure on their members to vote the party position. Both the majority and minority whips recruit deputy whips to assist in this process.
In 2003, Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to attain the highest Congressional leadership position of her party when she was voted minority leader by the House Democrats. Pelosi replaced Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who stepped down after failing to produce a Democratic majority during the previous midterm elections.