Five Facts on the Speaker of the House

Five Facts on the Speaker of the House

With a new Congress set to be seated in a few weeks, House Republicans are locked in a fierce debate to elect their next speaker – and with good reason due to the importance of this position. Here are Five Facts about this important and unique position that plays a critical role in the U.S. legislative process.

1. Anyone can be elected speaker.

The speaker is elected solely by the members of the House of Representatives, and the winner is almost certain to be a member of the majority party. But while every speaker of the House has been a sitting member of Congress, the Constitution doesn’t explicitly say they have to be. For example, in the 2013 speaker election, a number of members cast their votes for former Secretary of State Colin Powell rather than the eventual winner Rep. John Boehner (R-OH).

2. Congress must have a Speaker of the House to function.

By law, Congress cannot proceed with its business without a speaker to preside over the House of Representatives. That means that if the roll call vote for speaker concludes without any candidate receiving a majority of votes, the roll call votes will repeat until someone wins the speaker gavel.

3. The speaker is second in the line of succession to the U.S. president.

Should the president and vice president both be unable to serve, the speaker would become president of the United States. It speaks to the significant power and influence of the speaker positions. Even more so than the majority leader in the Senate, the speaker of the House has broad authority to dictate the actions of their chamber of Congress. The speaker sets the legislative calendar, presides over debates, and personally appoints members to a number of committees. Importantly, the speaker of the House is second in the line of succession for the presidency.

4. Speakers are not term-limited.

Speakers of the House are allowed to hold the gavel as long as they can keep it. Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) led the House for more than 17 years between 1940 and 1961, while Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) served in the role for nearly 10 consecutive years.

5. Being elected as speaker does not guarantee a full term

Members of the House elect the speaker for two-year terms, but if they no longer support the speaker, they can at any time introduce a “motion to vacate the chair,” and if a majority of members support the resolution, the speaker must step down. Only twice in congressional history has a motion to vacate actually been filed – once in 1910, and once in 2015. In the latter case, the House did not end up voting on the motion, but it did factor in Speaker John Boehner’s decision to resign later that year.