Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice

Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting    ~    Community Matters
P.O. Box 97803    ~    Pittsburgh, PA  15227   ~    412-310-4886    ~
Copyright Patricia A. O'Malley    ~    All rights reserved
Established 1993

Congressional Leadership: Positions and Roles

How It Works and What Happens Next

September 28, 2015


Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) will resign as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and from his seat in Congress on October 30.  So, what does that mean?  What does the Speaker do?  What does it mean for Congress and the country?  Who will take his place?  And what happens next?

Word is that Boehner resigned because the Republican monster that he created has made governing impossible.  The 2016 federal fiscal year begins on October 1, and Congress must pass a budget or a continuing resolution no later than midnight, September 30.  Congressional teapartiers have been threatening to shut down the federal government, again, if the new budget contains a single dollar for Planned Parenthood.

I’ll leave the budget, Planned Parenthood, and shutdown issues for other articles.  Today, we’ll discuss how Congressional leadership works.

First, and most important, the House of Representatives is not “Congress”.
There is no such thing as “Congress and the Senate”.
I can’t make it any clearer than that.  Stop saying it.
The very first sentence of the Constitution says that

Congress consists of TWO parts:  the House of Representatives AND THE SENATE.
Just like cheese + burger = cheeseburger.

Get it?  Good.

The Constitution and Congressional Leadership
A Congress lasts for two years.  The public elects all House members and one-third of Senators in November of every even-numbered year.  The new Congress opens on the first business day after January 1 of the next year.  Each year’s work is called a session.  We are currently in the first session of the 114th Congress.

The Constitution requires only three congressional officers:  the Speaker of the House, Vice President, and Senate President Pro Tempore.  Each chamber selects other officers as it chooses.  Congressional officers and leaders are not the same thing.  The other officers are not elected members of Congress.  They are Congressional employees and serve purely administrative functions.  You can learn more about those positions on the House and Senate websites.

On the first day of each new Congress, each party caucus nominates someone to serve as Speaker.  The Constitution does not require that the Speaker be a member of the House, but all speakers have been House members.  Members usually vote for the nominee from their own party, but are not required to do so.  Any member can also vote for anyone else for speaker if s/he chooses.  The nominee with the majority of votes cast is the new Speaker.  The new Speaker then accepts the gavel from the outgoing Speaker to signify the transfer of power.

The House Speaker is very powerful.  S/he makes committee assignments and appoints committee chairs, ensures that members follow House rules, presides over House floor sessions, and controls everything that happens on the House floor.  The House Clerk assigns a number and a committee to every bill, but only the Speaker decides which bills face floor votes by the membership.  So if the Speaker doesn’t like a bill, it dies.  The Speaker also represents her/his home district in the House; Boehner represents Cincinnati.  The Speaker is second in line to the presidency, after the vice president.

Traditionally, the Senate elects the most senior senator of the majority party as President Pro Tempore.  The Constitution requires the PPT to preside over the Senate in the vice president’s absence.  Since the vice president rarely attends Senate sessions, the PPT is nearly always in control of the floor, but usually delegates the duty to junior senators.  The post also wields much influence.  The President Pro Tempore is third in line of succession to the presidency, after the Speaker of the House.  Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is the current President Pro Tem.

The Senate Majority Leader performs many of the same duties as House Speaker and is the Senate’s most powerful member.  S/he sets the agenda, manages filibusters, and is the first member recognized by the chair to speak on issues and bills before the Senate.  If the majority leader doesn’t want to debate or vote on a bill, the bill dies.

Party Leadership
Congressional leaders are those whom you see in news reports.  They are members of Congress and are chosen by their respective parties at the beginning of each new Congress. 

The majority party has the most members in the legislature, and the minority has fewer members.  Seniority is the primary factor in selecting leaders.  Currently, the Republican Party holds a majority in both houses of Congress.

Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate maintain similar leadership positions.
The leader acts as spokesperson for the party on the floor during debates and with the public and media. 
The whip encourages members to vote along party lines and consults with members to gauge their attitudes on public issues. 
Conference, caucus, and policy chairs work with the leaders to develop the party’s legislative agenda.

House Republican Leadership
Majority Leader:  Rep. Kevin McCarthy
Majority Whip:  Rep. Steve Scalise
Conference Chair:  Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers
Policy Committee Chair:  Rep. Luke Messer

House Democratic Leadership
Minority Leader:  Rep. Nancy Pelosi
Minority Whip:  Rep. Steny Hoyer
Assistant Minority Leader:  Rep. James Clyburn
Caucus Chairman:  Rep. Xavier Becerra

Senate Republican Leadership
Majority Leader:  Mitch McConnell
Majority Whip:  John Cornyn
Conference Chair:  John Thune
Policy Committee Chair:  John Barrasso
Conference Vice Chair:  Roy Blunt

Senate Democratic Leadership
Minority Leader:  Harry Reid
Minority Whip:  Richard Durbin
Conference Committee Chair:  Harry Reid
Conference Committee Vice Chair and Policy Committee Chair:  Charles Schumer
Conference Secretary:  Patty Murray

What Happens Next
Since Boehner represents the city of Cincinnati in the House, the Constitution requires Ohio Governor John Kasich to order a special election for Boehner’s district to elect a new representative.

Meanwhile, the House needs a new Speaker.  Each congressional party caucus – the Democrats and the Republicans – will meet separately to choose its nominee for Speaker.  October 30 will be Boehner’s last workday, so the vote will take place then or shortly beforehand.  Kevin McCarthy (Republican) and Nancy Pelosi (Democrat) will probably be the primary nominees but, considering the current political climate, anything can happen.  Teapartiers will make a desperate push to elect the most vicious of their sect.

If the new Speaker currently holds one of the other leadership positions, then that party caucus will fill that vacancy.

The Speaker selection doesn’t affect Senate leadership positions at all.  But since the new Speaker has to work with the Senate leaders, and the president, it would be a good idea to choose a member who is capable of rational thought and behavior.  We’ll see how that goes.

For more information:
Read the Constitution
Keep Track of Congress
House of Representatives
House Party Leadership
The Senate
Senate Party Leadership

Contact Pat to get email notice of all new Community Matters articles.