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What Does The Speaker of The House Do? | 5 Duties of The Speaker of The House


photo of kevin mccarthy speaking to reporters in the capitol after a vote

Right now, there’s a lot of buzz about the Speaker of the House because of the election that's happening right now. In November, Americans across the country voted for their congressional representatives. Now it’s January, and there’s a new session of Congress. With a new session comes the election of the Speaker of the House.


What Does The Speaker of The House Do?

an illustration of the english parliament in the medieval age

To understand the position of the Speaker of the House, it’s important to know the origins of the office. The origins date back to the 14th century in England, when Parliament would vote for someone to preside over Parliament and represent them before the King.


Americans took this part of the British government, and the Speaker of the House became a part of the American government. The power of the Speaker of the House has changed over time. When the office was created, it didn’t carry much influence. However, Henry Clay became the first to use the office (and his own charisma) to push an agenda through Congress.

Today, the Speaker of the House still presides over the House of Representatives, the first half of the US Congress. The House Speaker of today still holds significant influence. Here’s some of the things the House Speaker does:


1. They Preside Over The House

House Speakers make sure the House of Representatives runs smoothly and follow House rules


2. Oversees and Assigns Non-Elected House Staff

  • The Parliamentarian: Provides Assistance to House procedure

  • The Historian: Compiles and Records the history of the House

  • The General Counsel: Provides legal advice and assistance to Members, committees, officers, and employees of the House

  • The Inspector General: Audits (Inspects) Finances

  • The Sergeant-at-Arms: Oversees the safety and security of the House

  • The Clerk: Oversees mundane tasks like organizing the roll of House members and delivering messages to the Senate from the House

  • The Chief Administrative Officer: Leads the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, which basically oversees the everyday upkeep of the Capital and House offices, and assists House Representatives in their duties

  • The House Chaplain: Handles the pastoral counseling of the House, arranges memorial services, leads the opening of the House in prayers, and occasionally marries members of the House

3. Arrange the Voting Schedule

4. Assigns Members To Committees

5. Usually Leads Their Party


Usually, the Speaker of the House is the leader of the majority party, and so, the Speaker holds significant influence in how the House votes


In addition to this, they are the second in the line of succession after the Vice President.



How is The Speaker Chosen?

a photo of swearing in congress in the house of representatives

After an election of House Representatives (every two years), there is a new session of Congress. With a new session comes the election of the Speaker of the House. Typically, the leader of the majority political party wins the Speakership. While every House Speaker has always been a member of Congress, it’s technically not a requirement to be a representative.

A candidate just needs a simple majority to win (there are different types of majorities). A simple majority is simply just having one more vote than the opposition. So with a total of 435 representatives in Congress, the candidate has to win 218. However, if a member votes "present," the threshold for a majority falls since the vote isn’t added to the total.


When voting, members and members-elect (the new congressmen) vote when called on by the Clerk) Since there is no current Speaker of the House (since they’re voting on them), the Clerk from the last Congress leads the voting procedure.

The Clerk calls on each member of the House by their last name, and each member has three possible responses:

  1. They can vote for a candidate

  2. They can answer “present”, which acknowledges their presence but doesn’t count as a vote

  3. They just don’t answer


This is a unique voting procedure because the House usually records the votes electronically. This makes the process of voting faster. However, when electing the Speaker, House members traditionally vote verbally, and so a voting session can take a long time.


Why Did Kevin McCarthy Struggle To Become House Speaker in 2023?

a photo of nancy pelosi speaking

The former Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who was the first female House Speaker, decided to step down. She decided to step down due to an attack on her husband in their home, and after it was predicted that Republicans would win the House.

Kevin McCarthy was the Republican Minority Leader when Pelosi was Speaker. Essentially, he was the leader of the Republican Party in the House when they were in the minority before the recent election.


And so, Kevin McCarthy was expected to become the next House Speaker, although it appeared not all Republicans supported him when he was nominated by the Republican Party to be their candidate for Speaker.

Currently, the Republicans hold 222 seats, while the Democrats hold 212 after the 2022 election. Because of this, it was expected that McCarthy would become the Speaker easily, as the vote typically breaks along party lines.

a photo of matt gaetz speaking to reporters after the speaker vote

However, a group of 20 representatives led by Republican Matt Gaetz is refusing to vote for McCarthy. And the Republicans have had trouble keeping a House Speaker over the last 30 years, with four different Republicans serving as House Speaker since 1995.

Democrats aren’t much luckier, and both have trouble electing a Speaker. In 2011, both sides had dissenters who favored voting for candidates other than their party leaders. 18 Democrats chose not to vote for Nancy Pelosi, similar to this election where 20 Republicans refuse to vote for McCarthy.

These 20 refuse to vote for McCarthy because they believe that McCarthy is "part of the swamp."They believe he's part of the system, and won't actually bring about the change Americans need. Trump even supports McCarthy as he seeks the Speakership, and McCarthy himself says that he will seek the Speakership even if it takes him 50 rounds to win.


Electing a Speaker has rarely been easy, but it has also rarely been this difficult. Currently, Congress has voted six times on a Speaker, and McCarthy hasn't received enough votes every time. However, there are times in history when it’s taken longer to vote for a Speaker.

In 1849, it took the House nineteen days to vote on a Speaker. The Speaker was only chosen after the House agreed to elect by plurality. Basically, it meant that whoever had the most votes won, regardless of whether they had the majority.

If the House eventually decides to elect by plurality, it currently looks like McCarthy wouldn't have the votes. In the 6th vote for Speaker, McCarthy received 201 votes, Jeffries received 212, Rep. Donalds of Florida received 20 votes, and Rep. Spartz of Indiana voted "present." This means that Democrat Rep. Hakeem Jeffries would become House speaker as he currently has the most votes.


 

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