It would be a stretch to say that the US government came to a standstill after GOP members of the House unseated Kevin McCarthy as Speaker at the start of October. The Senate and the executive branch both kept working to move their priorities forward during the three weeks before the House finally found a replacement. Federal workers kept programs running and operations on an even keel.
Yet the House’s dysfunction had a clear cost: an inability to act on key initiatives, like aid to Ukraine and to Israel; weeks lost before a looming government shutdown; and a sense both at home and abroad that a key part of our democracy had simply frozen in place. So you might be wondering: How could it be that one vacancy would cause so much trouble?
Interestingly, the Constitution doesn’t say much about the Speaker’s role, though it does mention it, right there in Article 1, Section 2: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers…” As the National Constitution Center put it some years back, “The Founders’ intention appeared to be for the Speaker to serve as a parliamentarian and peace maker, more along the lines of the speaker in the British House of Commons.”
Over the centuries, however, the Speakership has evolved to become one of the most powerful positions in Washington—not on a par with the presidency, but not far behind. That’s because the House—the chamber where taxing and spending originate, and indispensable to passing legislation and creating congressional policy—depends fully on the Speaker to operate. The Speaker sets its agenda, establishes its work and voting calendar, controls committee assignments, decides which bills will get voted on and then oversees the votes themselves, determines how debate will unfold on the floor, and appoints the staffers who are key to the House’s functioning, like the parliamentarian.
The Speaker is also the leader of his or her party in the House, with the power, at least in theory, to call the tune on the party’s legislative initiatives and to make or derail a president’s agenda. An effective Speaker does all this by using the incentives and punishments under her or his control to keep legislators—especially rebellious ones—in line. This is crucial: The House is a fractious place, filled with big egos, powerful politicians, and multiple factions forming around ideology, geography, legislative priority, and other fault lines. In a sense, the Speaker’s role is to make the chamber work in spite of itself.
When I served in the House, new members learned very quickly that if they wanted to get something done, the first call you made was to the Speaker. And that you should never try an end run around the Speaker. Yet it’s also true that some Speakers have been more powerful and effective than others—people like Sam Rayburn and Joseph Cannon or, in the modern era, Nancy Pelosi. Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks on why the GOP caucus found it so difficult to find common ground on a Speaker candidate, but one thing is clear: With the advent of legislators who don’t care about legislating but do care about throwing wrenches into the works, especially in a closely divided chamber, the Speaker’s traditional levers of power have been weakened, at least on the Republican side.
Because of the Constitution’s vagueness, the Speaker’s role has always been a matter of tradition, precedent, and a response to the needs of the moment. Early on, under the parliamentary manual written by Thomas Jefferson and made a formal part of House rules in 1837, the Speaker wasn’t even supposed to talk on the House floor during debates. So it’s hardly unprecedented for legislators to agitate for a relatively weak Speakership. The question faced by the majority of House members who actually want to get something done, however, is how long they’re willing to countenance a Speaker who’s so hemmed in by rank-and-file members that the House—the so-called people’s body—can’t do its job.