The Case for the Unitary Speaker

The debate over who will be the next Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is really a debate about the structure of power in our political system. Members of the House’s Freedom Caucus argue that power has become too centralized and reforms must open up the legislative process to more members. They allege that the Speaker has become too powerful and that the House is being run as a top-down institution. 

A short history of the office would be helpful to evaluate this claim. Upon examination, history tells us that we actually do not have a strong, but a weaker Speaker.

The Speaker played a minimal role in the first years of our history. With so few representatives, each bill could be debated and amended by the entire House. This model left a leadership void. As a result, the executive branch set the legislative agenda. Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, wrote reports, crafted proposals, and sent them over to be passed into law.  President Thomas Jefferson actually drafted bills for Congress to enact.

Over time it became clear that without internal leadership Congress was more easily dominated by the President and the administration. It is no coincidence that every time the House stripped powers from its Speaker, power moved to the executive. Power moved back to Congress whenever the Speaker’s role was strengthened.

This process began in 1811 with the election of Henry Clay of Kentucky to the House of Representatives—and to the Speakership on his very first day serving in Congress—and continued throughout the 19th century. By 1900, the Speaker had accumulated massive influence, rooted in three powers: 1) the power to name the members and chairs of committees; 2) chairmanship of the Rules Committee, which controlled the order of legislation and rules of debate by issuing “special rules” to bring legislation to the top of the legislative calendar; and 3) the power to recognize members and therefore determine what business would be conducted and who could speak.

Thomas Reed (R-Maine), elected Speaker in 1889, was the most important figure in instituting these changes. Unless the party’s leaders can control the order of bills, the number of amendments, and the length of debate on the floor, Speaker Reed reasoned, the minority can prevent the majority from acting by exploiting the rules. As he argued, “The object of a parliamentary body is action, and not stoppage of action. Hence, if any member or set of members undertakes to oppose the orderly progress of business . . . it is the right of the majority to refuse to have those motions entertained.”

The “Reed Rules” of 1890 consolidated control of the House in the Speaker’s hands and established the concept of party responsibility, in which the party that wins a majority of the country gets to implement its legislative agenda through strong leaders who can control the business of the Congress. Party responsibility thus achieved two important objectives: 1) guarding Congress’s powers from executive usurpation, and 2) allowing the majority to implement its agenda.

This concept was short-lived because Progressive reformers revolted against the strong leadership of Joseph Cannon (R-IL), chosen as Speaker in 1903. Cannon was a strong conservative Speaker who used his powers to block Progressive legislation advanced by Theodore Roosevelt and Progressive Republicans in the House.

These insurgent Republicans and Democrats stripped the Speaker of his powers in a revolt in 1910. The Speaker lost his power to make committee assignments and was removed from the Rules Committee.

The consequences were massive. Power was radically decentralized in the House, allowing individual members to operate outside of their party’s agenda, and the ability to block legislation increased dramatically. (It also created many more access points for lobbyists and interest groups to influence legislation.) With a large legislature following so many different constituencies and interests, leadership had to come from somewhere. Administrative power and the President stepped in to fill the void of setting the agenda for the House.

The person who saw this problem most clearly was Newt Gingrich (R-GA), selected as Speaker following the 1994 elections that gave Republicans control of the House. Gingrich saw that Congress’s weak internal leadership facilitated the growth of government, and that the best way to reverse the growth of government was to reestablish some of the Speaker’s powers. By implementing the will of the majority, a strong Speaker simultaneously prevents small interest groups from tyrannizing over the majority and prevents unwanted expansion of the state.

In order to empower the Republican majority, Gingrich reasserted control over committee members and chairs and increased the Speaker’s representation on the Steering Committee, (which proposes committee assignments). These are the powers that the Freedom Caucus now seeks to strip from the Speaker.

Conservatives are rightly concerned about a government that is unresponsive to the will of the people, where narrow interests prevail over the long-term good of the country. But history shows that the parties have been the best mechanisms for limiting government, checking the executive, and implementing the will of the majority. A weaker Speaker achieves none of these important goals.

Joseph Postell

Joseph Postell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. His research focuses primarily on regulation, administrative law, and the administrative state. He is the editor, with Bradley C.S. Watson, of Rediscovering Political Economy (Lexington Books, 2011), and with Johnathan O'Neill, of Toward an American Conservatism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

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  1. gabe says

    “But history shows that the parties have been the best mechanisms for limiting government, checking the executive, …”

    Would that be the “modern” Democrat Party that *limits* government? Then again, the modern GOP does not do much better.

    Structurally, I think you are correct – “parties”, at least ones with a coherent philosophy and effective leadership can and have served to limit Executive power AND limit government. However, those days are long gone.
    Quite frankly, I suspect that the PEOPLE do not want those days to return addicted as they have become to the general “largesse” of BIG government distributions.

    Would any of the demands of the Freedom Caucus even be of concern were it not for the fact that their Party has seemed to abandon its age old philosophy and repeatedly broken the promises made in pursuit of electoral victory? Were the GOP leadership more interested in “limiting” government, would the Freedom Caucus be interested in limiting the power of the Speaker.

    No, this is more situational, more ideological than structural.

    ““The object of a parliamentary body is action, and not stoppage of action” or so Speaker Reed would have us believe.
    While it may be true that the bias of PARLIAMENT was toward “action”, was not the American Legislative Branch specifically designed such that “action” could *(would?) be countered at various check points.
    So which Speaker type best advances that notion.

    Guess it depends on which side you are on – and when!

  2. Scott Amorian says

    Notice the AWOL Senate in all this?

    The Senate has never worked the way it was originally intended to work, so the House leadership and the President end up stepping in to fill the void.

    The Senate was to play a refereeing and moderating role in the intentional conflict of powers between the decentralized and populist House and the centralized President. The Senate isn’t doing what it is supposed to be doing, so we have a mess.

    History has shown that the parties are effective to some degree at checking powers. But history also shows that partisanship still leads to governmental degradation. It just degrades slower than other systems, at least with three partisan chambers to pass through before proposed law becomes actioned law–the House, the Senate and the Presidency. I question though whether there is not a better system. Specifically, what if the Senate were to begin operating the way the Framers intended it to operate.

    • gabe says

      ” Specifically, what if the Senate were to begin operating the way the Framers intended it to operate.”

      Yep, now that is a very interesting question. For a short period in our history, the Senate may be said to have approximated that role. It was somewhat more deliberative, its members viewed themselves as statesmen, not the referees for the latest populist onslaught AND most importantly understood themselves to be, and acted as State Ambassadors representing the interests of their home states. As anticipated, the Senate did serve to limit the growth of government, if only in those interests where the central government appeared to be encroaching upon State prerogative.

      Oddly enough, the Senate was able to do this even though elevation to the Senate came by way of voting by a “partisan” legislature. Unfortunately, the partisanship of these Legislatures came to be the downfall of the Legislative appointment process EVEN before the passage of the 17th Amendment. (At the time of adoption there were already 28(?) states that had switched to popular election of Senators.

      Nevertheless, it would be an interesting experiment to once again try this.

    • Scott Amorian says

      Unfortunately, the state governments suffer the same illness of unchecked populism that the federal government does. That, I believe, is what part of what caused the problems with the Senate. That’s also why I’m guarded about the prospects of an article V convention of states. It could easily be a cluster of state representatives flocking together to waste a lot of resources creating something unworkable.

      I would look to a governor to propose and champion reforms in their state government before trying something at the federal level. Are you still up for supporting me for governor of Oregon?

      Or maybe Greece or Thailand might implement something interesting. They are both about due for a new constitution.

  3. Dennis J. Tuchler says

    A unitary speaker is in a great position to command political or financial (or both kinds of) compensation for allowing legislation to proceed. Distribution of this wealth would support the speaker’s power. At least, under the present arrangement, the corruption is more dispersed.

  4. CJ Wolfe says

    These are interesting historical points. Wasn’t the big shift in terms of leadership on legislation during FDR’s Presidency though? The President proposing his own budget and legislative package seems like the decisive break to me, although the earlier precedents you point to may be more important for different reasons


  1. […] Joseph Postell argues that conservatives are better off if the Speaker of the House is a strong figu…, as opposed to having decentralized leadership; I don’t agree with this but it’s an interesting argument. Congressman Paul Ryan says he’s willing to be speaker if the major Republican caucuses endorse him. Ryan’s views on immigration may deny him the endorsement of conservatives. […]

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