About the Speaker of the House of Representatives

Second in the Line of Presidential Succession

USA, Washington DC, Capitol building at dusk
Capitol building, Washington DC. Dennis Flaherty/DigitalVision/Getty Images

The position of Speaker of the House of Representatives is created in Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution, which states, "The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers...."

How the Speaker Is Chosen

As the highest-ranking member of the House, the Speaker is elected by a vote of the members of the House. While it is not required, the Speaker usually belongs to the majority political party.

The Constitution does not require that the Speaker be an elected Member of Congress. However, no non-member has ever been elected Speaker.

As required by the Constitution, the Speaker is elected by a roll call vote held on the first day of every new session of Congress, which begins in January following the November midterm election held every two years. The Speaker is elected to a two-year term. 

Typically, both the Democrats and the Republicans nominate their own candidates for Speaker. Roll call votes to select the Speaker are held repeatedly until one candidate receives a majority of all votes cast.

Along with the title and duties, the Speaker of the House continues to serve as the elected representative from his or her congressional district. 

Powers Duties and Privileges of the Speaker

Typically the head of the majority party in the House, the speaker outranks the Majority Leader. The salary of the Speaker is also higher than that of the Majority and Minority Leaders in both the House and Senate.

The Speaker rarely presides over regular meetings of the full House, instead delegating the role to another representative. The Speaker does, however, typically presides over special joint sessions of Congress in which the House hosts the Senate.

The Speaker of the House serves as the presiding officer of the House.

In this capacity, the Speaker:

  • Calls meetings of the House to order
  • Administers the oath of office to new members
  • Ensures that order and decorum are maintained on the floor of the House and in the visitor galleries
  • Makes rulings on disputed House procedures and parliamentary issues

As any other Representative, the Speaker may take part in debates and vote on legislation but, traditionally does so only in exceptional circumstances such as when his or her vote could decide very important issues such as resolutions declaring war or amending the Constitution

The Speaker of the House also:

  • Appoints the chairpersons and members of standing House committees and select and special committees
  • Appoints a majority of members to the important House Rules Committee
  • Exerts power over the legislative process by setting the House legislative calendar determining when bills will be debated and voted on
  • Often utilizes this power to help fulfill his or her responsibility of making sure bills supported by the majority party are passed by the House
  • Serves as chair of the majority party's House steering committee

Perhaps most clearly indicating the importance of the position, the Speaker of the House stands second only to the Vice President of the United States in the line of presidential succession.

The first Speaker of the House was Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, elected during the first session of Congress in 1789. 

The longest-serving and perhaps most influential Speaker in history was Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn, who served as Speaker from 1940 to 1947, 1949 to 1953, and 1955 to 1961. Working closely with House committees and members from both parties, Speaker Rayburn ensured the passage of several controversial domestic policy and foreign aid bills backed by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.