Just the Facts

Five Facts: Shaping the speaker of the House

By No Labels
May 30, 2018 | Blog

The speaker of the House is arguably the most powerful person in Congress, the position mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Yet the founding documents don’t define the role in great detail. They don’t even require the speaker to be an elected member of the House, though all who have held the job have been.

Accordingly, the speaker’s role has largely been defined over the years by the 54 people who have held the position. As Speaker Paul Ryan prepares to retire at the end of the year, leaving the next Congress to elect his successor, here’s a look at five House speakers who helped shape the role over time.


Henry Clay helped elevate the role to that of national leader

Clay served as speaker for more than 10 non-consecutive years beginning in 1811. The Dirksen Congressional Center described his tenure: “The young, dynamic Henry Clay of Kentucky transformed the speakership … into a power that rivaled that of the president. All speakers who have since put their stamp on the office have been compared to Henry Clay. His power came not from the Constitution or from any particular House rules, but from his own energy, his forceful personality, and his willingness to see himself as virtually co-equal to the president.”


Joe Cannon consolidated legislative power

Cannon served as Republican speaker for the better part of a decade, beginning in 1903. His tenure vastly increased the power of the position. As both chairman of the Rules Committee and speaker, Cannon controlled the entire legislative process. As the House historical website described it, “During Cannon’s reign, he usurped power from the committee chairs and ruled the Congress with an iron fist, earning him the nickname ‘Czar Cannon.’” Later in his career, his powers were stripped away by a bipartisan group of reformers, but the example was set for future speakers.


Newt Gingrich shaped the modern speaker role

When Republicans won control of the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, Gingrich ascended to speaker. He proceeded to consolidate power over the legislative agenda, moving authority from the committee chairs to the speaker’s office. Many historians credit him with shaping the current system, in which the speaker and his or her leadership team has complete control over the flow and content of legislation.


Dennis Hastert contributed the controversial ‘Hastert Rule’

Dennis Hastert, the Republican speaker for almost eight years beginning in 1999, began a controversial tradition still in use today: He would not bring a bill to the floor unless a majority of his Republican members supported the legislation. Known as the ‘Hastert Rule,’ the practice is not really a rule. There’s no formal requirement, and speakers have ignored it when convenient. But it is a practice still in wide use. The result is that legislation that could pass with bipartisan support will not make it to the floor unless a majority of Republicans support it.


Nancy Pelosi was the first woman to serve as speaker

Nancy Pelosi, the current Democratic leader, was the first and thus-far only woman to serve as speaker, holding the role from 2007 to 2011. As such, she has held the highest elected office of any female politician in U.S. history. Pelosi was instrumental in passing the Affordable Care Act during her tenure, and was a major force in shaping the legislative agenda during the Obama administration. She ultimately lost the gavel when Democrats lost control of the House. But not before shattering a glass ceiling in the House. In her acceptance speech, she called it, “a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years.”

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