Why Speakers Are An Important Part Of The Political Process

When US Speaker of the House John Boehner announced his resignation in late September 2015, questions of the cause and implications were plentiful.

Many don’t realize how important the Speaker of the House is; in the United States, the position is second in line to the presidency, after the Vice President.

Here’s what you should know about Speakers in the US and abroad, what they do, and where they fit into the political process.

A history of Speakers

[contextly_auto_sidebar]The role of speaker dates back to England in 1337. The duty? To preside over a deliberative assembly, especially a legislative body.

Many Speakers moderate debates, make rulings on procedures, announce voting results, and often speak as representative over the body they preside over.

In the US, the Speaker of the House presides over the House of Representatives; as the role is one of leadership, the Speaker will delegate others to preside over debates. The position was established in the Constitution in 1789.

In parliamentary countries like England and Australia, Speakers are considered nonpartisan, while in the US, the Speaker represents and sets the majority party’s legislative agenda — currently a Republican party majority.  

How they are elected

A new speaker will be elected to replace John Boehner on October 8, 2015. The Republican Speaker was not favored by many hardline conservatives, who found him too willing to compromise with opposition. The opening is an opportunity for Republicans to elect someone they think will better represent the interests of conservative hardliners.

Speaker elections differ by country, but typically voted in by the body being represented.

In the US, elections are held as following:

When a Congress convenes for the first time, each major party conference or caucus nominates a candidate for Speaker. Members customarily elect the Speaker by roll call vote. A Member usually votes for the candidate from his or her own party conference or caucus but can vote for anyone, whether that person has been nominated or not.

To be elected, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast.

Speakers need not be Members to be elected, but always have been.

Why the Speaker matters

The role of Speaker is rarely a fun or easy one. Boehner himself likened it to that of a garbageman, getting used to the stink of criticisms from all angles

The job is a difficult, frustrating, borderline-impossible duty when a fragmented House has, and could once more lead to a shutdown of the federal government over certain legislative details.

Following Pope Francis’ US visit, during which he warned against the evils of reductionism and polarization, it’s unclear whether or not the new Speaker will reel in those that personify these traits exactly, or cater to them.

If they want to pass bills, though — and to make any difference, this is essential — compromise is sometimes the only option.


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Jennifer Markert