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“the House Shall Chuse Their Speaker…”
And in doing so, the fate of Congress—will it be weak? will it be strong?—is determined
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
In December, 1847, after Robert C. Winthrop of Massachusetts had won election as Speaker of the House of Representatives, three of the nation’s most remarkable political leaders stopped by to offer advice. Winthrop, a graduate of Harvard College and scion of one of the country’s most distinguished families, was already a veteran of several Congresses and hardly the kind of man who would seek advice. The office he now held, however, was of immense importance. On him, in part, rested the fate of representative government in the United States.
John Quincy Adams told him: “The Speaker of the House of Representatives is next to the President and the Vice President: call upon no one else.” Henry Clay advised: “Decide promptly and never give the reasons for your decisions; the House will sustain your decisions, but there will always be men to cavil and quarrel over your reasons.” Thomas Hart Benton, a great parliamentarian in his own right, took a third approach: “Be as modest as you please, but don’t compromise the House of Representatives.”
In these different ways, each laid home to Winthrop the need to protect the power and the dignity of his office, for as Speaker, Winthrop had far more to do than merely preside over the deliberations of the House and sign each engrossed bill passed by the Congress. He had charge of the House of Representatives. He directed its officers and many committees. Not only did he have to keep the boisterous place in order and rule on all procedural questions, but he had above all to see that the House did its work, that it enacted all the bills needed to keep the government functioning.
Winthrop had been chosen Speaker on the third ballot of a spirited contest, the first action taken by that new House of Representatives, then convening for the first time. For every new Congress, the election of a Speaker has always been the first order of business. This is no idle matter: the House cannot function until the Speaker is chosen, nor can the Congress, nor for that matter can the United States government. Once, in the winter of 1855-56, the federal government was all but paralyzed for two months while the House cast no fewer than i33 ballots before electing a Speaker.
Not surprisingly, the House conducts these elections with a litany of rituals almost as old as the republic. In party caucuses, the members-elect choose candidates for the post. When the House meets, with the Clerk of the previous House in the chair temporarily, these candidates are formally nominated, and then the members-elect solemnly vote for one or the other of them. After the results are announced, the loser escorts the winner to the rostrum and graciously introduces him to the cheering spectators. As graciously, the Speaker-elect thanks his colleagues for their show of confidence in him, and pledges to uphold the highest traditions of the House of Representatives to the best of his abilities, and to preside over the deliberations of the House with appropriate fairness. The “Father of the House,” its most senior member, then gives the oath of office to the Speaker-elect. That done, the Speaker swears in the other members. Only then is the House ready to do business. Only then does the House formally notify the President that its members are in session and prepared to receive from him whatever communication he may deem fit to send.
The House arrays the election of its Speaker with such solemnities because the members know that the one chosen determines in a real sense the fate of the convening Congress. A weak Speaker forecasts a weak Congress; a strong, dynamic Speaker predicts an energetic, creative Congress. He is “the elect of the elect,” the chosen of the people’s representatives, and on him more than any other depends the success of the legislative branch.
The post itself is a “constitutional” office, one of the few specified by the Founding Fathers, the “assembly of demigods”—as Thomas Jefferson described them—who drafted the Constitution. The members of Congress have always revered the office. In the very first Congress, they voted to pay the Speaker $1 a a day, twice the amount they voted for themselves. In the early years, rooms in boarding houses at the capital city were scarce and representatives and senators had to double up, but the Speaker had a room of his own.
Surprisingly, the Founders forgot to set any qualifications for the job. They merely wrote into the Constitution that “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers…” and let it go at that. Thus, by constitutional proviso, the Speaker need not be a member of Congress, nor even an American citizen. The members of the House are free to elect anyone, of any age or birth or residence. The President and the Vice President must be natural-born citizens, at least thirty-five years old, but the Speaker, technically and legally, could be a Basque shepherd boy or anyone else. This is one of the few oversights by the Founding Fathers, but despite the options open to them, the members of the House have always elected one of their own.