The Role of the House Majority Leader: An Overview
CRS Report for Congress
The Role of the House Majority Leader:
Updated April 4, 2006
Walter J. Oleszek
Senior Specialist in the Legislative Process
Government and Finance Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The Role of the House Majority Leader: An Overview
The majority leader in the contemporary House is second-in-command behind
the Speaker of the majority party. Typically, the majority leader functions as the
Speaker’s chief lieutenant or “field commander” for day-to-day management of the
floor. Although the majority leader’s duties are not especially well-defined, they
have evolved to the point where it is possible to spotlight two fundamental and often
interlocking responsibilities that orient the majority leader’s work: institutional and
From an institutional perspective, the majority leader has a number of duties.
Scheduling floor business is a prime responsibility of the majority leader. Although
scheduling the House’s business is a collective activity of the majority party, the
majority leader has a large say in shaping the chamber’s overall agenda and in
determining when, whether, how, or in what order legislation is taken up. In
addition, the majority leader is active in constructing winning coalitions for the
party’s legislative priorities; acting as a public spokesman — defending and
explaining the party’s program and agenda; serving as an emissary to the White
House, especially when the President is of the same party; and facilitating the orderly
conduct of the House’s business.
From a party perspective, three key activities undergird the majority leader’s
principal goal of trying to ensure that the party remains in control of the House. First,
the majority leader assists in the reelection campaigns of party incumbents by, for
example, raising campaign funds and traveling to scores of House districts to
campaign either with incumbents or challengers of the party. Second, the majority
leader promotes the party’s agenda by developing themes and issues important to
core supporters in the electorate. Third, the majority leader encourages party
cohesion by, for instance, working to minimize internal factional disagreements that
may undermine the majority party’s ability to govern the House.
Origin of the Majority Leader Position.................................2
Scheduling Floor Business.......................................5
Manage Floor Decision Making..................................6
Confer with the White House....................................8
Facilitate the Conduct of Business.................................9
Assist Colleagues’ Reelection Campaigns..........................10
Promote the Party’s Agenda.....................................10
Encourage Party Cohesion......................................11
Appendix 1. House Majority Leaders, 1899-2006.......................13
The Role of the House Majority Leader:
The majority leader in the contemporary House is second-in-command behind
the Speaker of the majority party. Typically, the majority leader functions as the
Speaker’s chief lieutenant or “field commander” for day-to-day management of the
floor. “I’m the Speaker’s agent,” stated a recent majority leader.1 Another majority
leader said: “I see it that [the Speaker] is the chairman of the board and I am the chief
executive officer.”2 Or as one Speaker put it, the majority leader’s “job is to run the
floor and keep monitoring committees and legislation.”3
Elected every two years by secret ballot of the party caucus or conference, the
majority leader is usually an experienced legislator. For example, Representative
Richard Armey of Texas became the GOP’s first majority leader in 40 years when
Republicans won control of the 104th House in the November 1994 elections. Armey
began his House service in 1985, became GOP Conference chairman during the 103rd
Congress, and was one of the principal authors of the Republican “Contract with
America.” When Richard Gephardt, D-MO, became majority leader in June 1989,
he had been in the House for more than a decade, had served as chairman of the
Democratic Caucus for four years, and had been a 1988 presidential candidate.
Two fundamental and often interlocking responsibilities orient the work of the
majority leader: institutional and party. From an institutional perspective, the
majority leader is principally responsible for exercising overall supervision of the
order of business on the floor, especially as it affects the party’s program. As Lewis
Deschler, the late House parliamentarian (1928-1974), wrote:
A party’s floor leader, in conjunction with other party leaders, plays an
influential role in the formulation of party policy and programs. He is
instrumental in guiding legislation favored by his party through the House, or in
resisting those programs of the other party that are considered undesirable by his
own party. He is instrumental in devising and implementing his party’s strategy
on the floor with respect to promoting or opposing legislation. He is kept
constantly informed as to the status of legislative business and as to the sentiment
of his party respecting particular legislation under consideration. Such
information is derived in part from the floor leader’s contacts with his party’s
1 Mark Wegner, “The Speaker’s Agent,” National Journal’s CongressDailyAM, May 14,
2 Jonathan Kaplan, “Hastert, DeLay: Political Pros Get Along To Go Along,” The Hill, July
3 Alan Ota, “Setbacks Test Hastert’s Leadership Style,” CQ Today, May 4, 2005, p. 24.
members serving on House committees, and with the members of the party’s4
From a partisan perspective, the majority leader’s paramount assignment is to
employ his or her talents, energy, and knowledge of procedural rules and political
circumstances to insure that the party maintains majority control of the House. Each
of these major responsibilities gives rise to a wide range of leadership activities.
Before discussing the primary duties of the majority leader, it is worth highlighting
the historical origins of this party position.
Origin of the Majority Leader Position
Congressional scholars assert that in 1899 Speaker David Henderson, R-Iowa,5
appointed Sereno E. Payne, R-NY, as the first officially designated majority leader.
Prior to this date, there is neither an accurate nor complete compilation of House
majority leaders. Two factors seem to account for the absence of a compilation.
First, it took many decades before anything like our modern party structure emergedth
in the House. As a result, not until nearly the end of the 19 century did the position
of “majority leader” become a recognized party office. Second, neither official
congressional sources nor party records of this early period identify a lawmaker as
the majority floor leader.
Several historians of the House suggest that from the chamber’s early
beginnings various lawmakers informally assumed the role of “floor leader.” Usually,
but not always, these informal party leaders were the chairs of either the Committee
on Ways and Means (established in 1795) or the Committee on Appropriations
(following its creation in 1865). Speakers often appointed either their allies or their
principal rivals for the speakership to head these panels. Explained the late Floyd M.
Riddick, a political scientist who served as parliamentarian of the Senate from 1951
In the House, the early titular floor leaders were at the same time the chairmen
of the Ways and Means Committee. Before the division of the work of that
committee, the duties of its chairmen were so numerous that they automatically
became the actual leaders, since as chairmen of that committee they had to direct
the consideration of most of the legislation presented to the House. From 1865
until 1896 the burden of handling most of the legislation was shifted to the
chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who then was designated most
frequently as the leader. From 1896 until 1910 once again the chairmen of the
Ways and Means Committee were usually sought as the floor leaders. During all
of these years before the “Cannon revolution” of 1910, the Speaker, who
appointed all members to committees, saw to it that his party opponent for
4 Lewis Deschler, Deschler’s Precedents of the United States House of Representatives, Vol.
5 Randall B. Ripley, Party Leaders in the House of Representatives (Washington, DC: The
Brookings Institution, 1967), p. 24.
Speakership, some Representative with a large following, or one of his faithful6
lieutenants was made the floor leader.
Thus, these early titular floor leaders were appointed by the Speaker rather than
chosen separately, as occurs today, by vote of the majority party caucus.7
(Appendix 1 contains a list of House majority leaders since 1899.)
When the House “revolted” in 1910 against the autocratic leadership of Speaker
Joseph Cannon, R-Ill., the power to designate the floor leader was taken away from
the Speaker. In 1911, with Democrats in charge of the House, Oscar Underwood of
Alabama became the first elected (by the party caucus) majority leader in the House’s
history. (Subsequently, all Democratic floor leaders have been selected in this
manner.) Underwood also chaired the Ways and Means Committee and his party’s
committee assignment panel. The political reality was that Majority Leader
Underwood’s influence in the House exceeded that of the Speaker, Champ Clark of
Missouri. “For the first time the leader of the House was not at the rostrum, but was
on the floor.”8 Probably no majority leader ever has matched Underwood’s party
power and institutional influence. (Underwood left the House for the Senate in 1915.)
When Republicans reclaimed majority control of the House in 1919, Franklin
Mondell of Wyoming, a high ranking member of the Appropriations Committee,
became majority leader upon nomination by the GOP committee assignment panel.
(Four years later the GOP Conference began the practice of electing their majority9
leader.) Mondell set the contemporary practice of majority leaders usually
relinquishing their committee positions, and always any committee chairmanships,
6 Floyd M. Riddick, The United States Congress: Organization and Procedure (Manassas,
Va.: National Capitol Publishers, Inc., 1949), p. 86. For further historical information about
the floor leader, see DeAlva Stanwood Alexander, History and Procedure of the House of
Representatives (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916), Chapter VII; Garrison Nelson,
“Leadership Position-Holding in the United States House of Representatives,” Capitol
Studies, Fall 1976, pp. 11-36; and the Congressional Record - Appendix, vol. 102, Mar. 20,
1956, pp. A2489-A2494. The Record insertion is a report on the majority leadership
prepared by George B. Galloway for then-House Majority Leader John McCormack, D-MA.
7 Early House members also recognized that certain lawmakers informally assumed floor
leadership roles on behalf of presidents or executive officials. For example, in 1789
Congress requested Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to prepare a plan to deal with
the public debt. Representatives Fisher Ames and Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts and
Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut “served as Hamilton’s lieutenants on the chamber floor,
exercising some control over what proposals were made and how they were voted on by
coordinating Hamilton’s supporters in the House.” John H. Aldrich, Why Parties? The
Origin and Transformation of Party Politics in America (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1995) , p. 79. President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) also relied on trusted House
members to function as de facto floor leaders to shepherd his program through the House.
8 George Rothwell Brown, The Leadership of Congress (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill
Co., 1922), p. 176. Also see James S. Fleming, “Oscar W. Underwood: The First Modern
House Leader, 1911-1915,” in Roger H. Davidson, et. al., eds., Masters of the House:
Congressional Leadership Over Two Centuries (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998), pp.
9 Ripley, Party Leaders in the House of Representatives, p. 25.
upon assuming this important and busy post. To be sure, there have been exceptions
to the practice of majority leaders not serving on standing committees.10
April 15, 1929, the start of the 71st Congress, witnessed a first-ever event that
remains the practice to this day: the official announcement in the House of the
selection of the majority leader. Representative Willis Hawley of Oregon, the
chairman of the majority Republican caucus addressed the presiding officer: “Mr.
Speaker, the Republican caucus of the House has reelected Hon. John Q. Tilson, of
Connecticut, majority leader for the Seventy-first Congress.” As House precedents
state, “this was the first occasion of the official announcement of the selection of
party leaders in the House.”11
Separate election of the majority leader by the party caucus elevated the status
and influence of the person who held this position. The majority leader soon became
the “heir apparent” to the speakership. In the modern House, no Democrat has been
elected Speaker without having been the majority leader immediately prior to his
elevation. Republicans, the minority party for 40 consecutive years until the mid-
1990s, do not have as well-defined a leadership succession ladder. When Speaker
Newt Gingrich, R-GA., retired from the House at the end of the 105th Congress,
Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston, R-LA., moved quickly and lined up the
necessary votes to be the next Speaker. However, when Livingston announced that
he planned to resign from the House for personal reasons soon after the 106th
Congress began, Republicans chose their chief deputy whip, Dennis J. Hastert of
Illinois, to be the next Speaker.
Unfortunately, there is scant scholarly commentary about the duties and
functions that devolved upon the informal floor leaders of the pre-20th century period.
Nor are the duties and functions of today’s majority leaders spelled out in the House
rulebook or in party rules, although those sources make brief reference to the
position. As a recent majority leader stated, “[E]ach leadership position is defined by
10 For example, starting in the 1970s, Democratic majority leaders held leadership-
designated positions on the Budget Committee and served ex officio on the Permanent
Select Intelligence Committee. Since Republicans took control of the House in the mid-
Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-TX), chaired a Select Committee on Homeland Security.
This panel assembled the recommendations of several standing committees to craft
legislation (H.R. 5005) authorizing the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland
Security. As an historical point of interest, it is worth noting that Underwood’s successor
as majority leader was North Carolinian Claude Kitchin (1915-1919), who also served as
chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. However, Kitchin disapproved of President
Wilson’s war policies and his floor and committee roles proved to be “cumbersome and
impractical,” as one scholar wrote. “A separation of the two roles was effected after the
Democrats became the minority in 1919. Ever since then, the majority leader’s job has
existed as a full-time position.” See Nelson Polsby, “The Institutionalization of the U.S.
House of Representatives,” American Political Science Review, Sept. 1968, pp. 157-158.
11 Clarence Cannon, Cannon’s Precedents of the House of Representatives of the United
States, Vol. VIII (Washington: GPO, 1935), p. 957.
the person who holds it. It’s not defined by a job description.”12 In short, factors
such as tradition, custom, context, and personality have largely defined the
fundamental institutional and party roles and responsibilities of the majority leader.
Several of the most important of these two overlapping categories merit mention.
However, it bears repeating that the scope of the majority leader’s role in carrying
out these assignments is shaped significantly by the Speaker and the sentiments of
the majority party caucus or conference.
The style and role of any majority leader is influenced by a plethora of elements,
including personality and contextual factors, such as the closeness of his relationship
with the Speaker, the size and cohesion of the majority party, whether the party
controls the White House, the general political environment in the House, and the
controversial nature of the legislative agenda. Despite the variability of these factors,
a number of institutional assignments are now associated with the majority leader,
and Members of each party expect him or her to perform them. To be sure, the
majority leader is provided with extra staff resources beyond those accorded him or
her as a House member to assist in carrying out these diverse leadership functions.
Majority Leader Armey even established a new leadership post — “assistant majorityth
leader”— at the start of the 106 Congress and named two Republican colleagues as
assistant majority leaders. Their assignment was to assist him on “floor scheduling,
legislative and communications strategy, the policy agenda, and leadership
Scheduling Floor Business
Although scheduling is a collective activity of the majority party, the majority
leader has a large say in shaping the chamber’s overall agenda and in determining
when, whether, how, and in what order legislation is taken up. Everything from
setting policy priorities; drafting the schedule; consulting with Members, committee
chairs, and the minority party in making up the schedule; and announcing the
schedule on the floor are within the purview of the majority leader. Scheduling is a
complex process and the majority leader must juggle a wide range of considerations
and pressures. Five concerns illustrate the scheduling role of the majority leader.
First, the majority leader commonly lays out the daily, weekly, monthly, and
annual agenda of the House. Of course, scheduling and agenda-setting are
responsibilities done in close consultation with the Speaker, majority whip, and
others. The majority leader may specify in advance that certain priority bills are to
be taken up prior to a congressional recess; he or she may even designate theme
weeks (“reform,” “high tech,” “families first,” and so on) for the consideration of
related bills. Typically, on Thursday after the House’s business for the day and week
is winding down, the majority leader will announce the projected agenda for each day
12 Ben Pershing, “DeLay Adjusting to His New Role,” Roll Call, Mar. 17, 2003, p. 3.
13 CQ Monitor, Jan. 21, 1999, p. 8.
of the next business week, identify when votes are expected to occur, and respond to
inquiries from Members about the House’s program of activities.
Second, a host of strategic considerations influence scheduling. For instance,
with an eye toward upcoming elections, the majority leader may schedule legislation
that better defines his or her party for the upcoming presidential and congressional
campaigns. He or she may not schedule a bill unless there is reasonable certainty that
the Senate will take floor action on it. The majority leader may also coordinate
strategy on measures with the Senate party counterpart. He or she may schedule floor
action at specific times — for instance, a constitutional amendment to ban flag
desecration just before July 4 — to maximize public attention on the issue. The
majority leader may use “deadline lawmaking,” indicating to Members that floor
action on certain legislation must occur before the House will adjourn for a district
work period. Or he or she may suggest general themes, messages, or strategies that
unify party colleagues around a set of domestic and international policies. A majority
leader may even propose his or her own annual legislative agenda — even if the
White House is controlled by the same party — and present it to the Speaker and the
party’s caucus or conference.
Third, majority leaders try to balance the House’s workload requirements with
Members’ family or personal obligations. “Family friendly” scheduling aims to
achieve better balance in the public and private lives of lawmakers. Fourth, majority
leaders advance or delay action on measures for a variety of reasons, including
whether they have the votes to achieve their objectives. To be sure, there are
occasions when measures are brought to the floor, and it is unclear whether they will
pass. Asked if a bill would pass, a majority leader replied: “Who knows? We’re
writing the bill on the floor.”14
Fifth, majority leaders recognize that timing considerations suffuse the
lawmaking process. There are timetables to meet, pressures associated with the end-
of-session rush to adjourn, the electoral needs of individual Members, and a
multitude of other considerations that the majority leader must address as he strives
to accommodate the rank-and-file, committee chairs, the minority party, the
president, and his own extended party leadership. As one majority leader put it:
“You have to find that elusive grail of harmony among this most heterogeneous mix
of opinionated individualists.”15
Manage Floor Decision Making
Majority leaders are active in constructing winning coalitions for their
legislative priorities. To this end, a majority leader will consult with the chair of the
Rules Committee to discuss procedures for considering legislation on the floor. For
example, an open or restricted amendment process might be options for discussion.
Or, the majority leader might decide to call up a bill under suspension of the rules
14 Andrew Taylor, “Budget Enforcement Legislation Founders in the House,” CQ Today,
June 24, 2004, p. 1.
15 Julia Malone, “To Jim Wright, Being Majority Leader Is One Long Juggling Routine,”
Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 19, 1983, p. 40.
procedure, which limits debate and bars any amendments. To limit policy riders on
appropriations bills, the majority leader might invoke House Rule XXI, clause 2 (d).
This rule grants preference to the majority leader to end consideration of an
appropriations bill in the Committee of the Whole by offering a successful “motion
Majority leaders engage in many other activities to promote policy success on
the floor. They may, for instance, meet weekly or biweekly (more frequently, if
needed) with committee chairs, ad hoc groups, or individual lawmakers to persuade
them to support priority measures; woo lawmakers through the provision of various
legislative services or rewards; coordinate vote counts with the party whip
organization; propose changes in bills to attract support from wavering Members;
reach out to lawmakers on the other side of the aisle; craft “leadership
amendments”designed to attract majority support; synchronize strategic activities
with majority floor managers; and rally outside support for the party’s legislative
issues and political messages.
Majority leaders may also take on other functions relevant to floor action. To
forge winning coalitions, for instance, they engage in deal-making, appeal to
Members’ party loyalty, enlist allies to overcome resistance to policy-party
objectives, devote considerable time and energy in promoting consensus among
colleagues, and work behind-the-scenes to get things done. Majority leaders might
also encourage party colleagues to deliver one-minute, morning hour, or special order
speeches that spotlight the party’s program and defend it against criticism from the
There are two interconnected dimensions associated with this role: external and
internal. Externally, especially in this “24/7” news cycle and Internet era, majority
leaders are national newsmakers. When he became majority leader in 1973, Thomas
P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., D-MA., said, “the media couldn’t stay away ... I was interviewed
16 The Rules of the House make specific reference to the majority leader in several other
instances. Rule II, clause 6, states that the House’s inspector general “shall be appointed for
a Congress by the Speaker, the Majority leader, and the Minority Leader, acting jointly.”
Rule II, clause 8, states that the “Office of General Counsel shall function pursuant to the
direction of the Speaker, who shall consult with a Bipartisan Leadership Advisory Group,
which shall include the majority and minority leaderships.” Under Rule IX, a question of
privilege offered from the floor by the majority leader “shall have precedence of all other
questions except motions to adjourn.” Under Rule X, clause 2, not later than “March 31 in
the first session of a Congress, after consultation with the Speaker, the Majority Leader, and
the Minority Leader, the Committee on Government Reform shall report to the House the
oversight plans” of the standing committees along with any recommendation it or the House
leaders have proposed to ensure the effective coordination of committees’ oversight plans.
By tradition, the majority leader also serves as a member of the House Office Building
Commission, and he names three members to serve as Private Calendar objectors. In
addition, the majority leader may, after consultation with the Speaker, during any even-
numbered year convene an early organizational caucus or conference.
constantly.”17 Majority leaders are expected to explain and defend the actions and
decisions of the House and their party to the general public. “The role of the majority
leader puts you in a spokesman role,” noted a recent majority leader.18 Accordingly,
these leaders appear on the major network and cable television programs, the Sunday
morning news shows, talk radio, or Internet chat rooms. Periodically, they deliver
major addresses in diverse forums, and write articles or “op ed” pieces on the major
issues before the House. They meet with journalists and newspaper editors.
Regularly, they give news briefings (so-called pen and pad sessions) to reporters on
the schedule and agenda of the House, the priorities of the majority party, legislative-
executive relations, and sundry other topics.
Internally, majority leaders are ready on the floor to defend their party, program,
or President from criticism by the opposition. They participate in debate on measures
and may make the closing argument on legislation. Majority leaders rise to defend
the prerogatives of individual Members; offer critiques and rebuttals to minority
party initiatives; work with committee chairmen and others to coordinate and
integrate the party’s communication strategy; employ floor speeches “to set the tone
on a newsworthy issue or provide the proscribed leadership perspective before a
major vote”;19 and may establish websites to provide information to House members
and others. In brief, majority leaders generally function as their party’s chief
spokesman on the floor and in other forums as well.
Sometimes the internal and external roles coincide when majority leaders
introduce legislation, monitor executive branch actions, or champion proposals
nationally. For example, Majority Leader Armey and another GOP colleague
traveled the country in a “Scrap the Code Tour,” a “national campaign to take the tax
reform debate directly to the American people.”20 Armey also attracted national
attention with respect to his legislative efforts to monitor executive branch
implementation of a 1993 law designed to measure the performance of government
Confer with the White House
Majority leaders regularly attend meetings at the White House — especially
when the President is of the same party — to discuss issues before Congress, the
Administrations’s agenda, and political events generally. For example, the joint
bipartisan congressional leadership, including the House majority leader, may meet
17 Speaker Tip O’Neill, Man of the House (New York: Random House, 1987), pp. 226-227.
18 Jim VanDeHei, “DeLay Nears Top of House He Reshaped,” The Washington Post, Nov.
19 Susan Crabtree, “DeLay Will Deliver a `Speech of the Week’,” Roll Call, Jan. 29, 2003,
20 Dick Armey and Billy Tauzin, “Should We Scrap the System,” Los Angeles Times, Oct.
21 Stephen Barr, “House Leader Flunks Agencies’ Plans,” The Washington Post, Aug. 27,
at the White House to discuss agenda priorities for the year.22 There are occasions,
too, when the President will journey to Capitol Hill to meet with the top leaders of
Congress. There are instances as well where majority leaders can be sharp critics of
the President. Majority leaders consult with executive branch officials plus scores
of other individuals (foreign dignitaries, governors, mayors, and so on.)
Majority leaders may also be active on international issues: brokering foreign
policy compromises with the White House, championing the interests of certain
nations, or criticizing some foreign governments. In general, anyone who occupies
the House’s number two leadership post has strengthened leverage with the White
House and greater public prominence on international issues. “People are now
listening to what I’ve been saying because I’m majority leader,” declared a former
holder of the post.23
Strategically, the role of majority leaders will be different depending on whether
the President is of the same party. In general, majority leaders will strive to advance
the goals and aspirations of their party’s President in the Congress. If the President
is of the opposite party, then the procedural and political situation is more
complicated. When should the majority leader cooperate with the President? When
should he or she urge the House to reject Administration policies? When should he
or she propose alternatives to the President’s priorities? In brief, the majority leader,
the Speaker, and their other party colleagues need to determine when to function as
the “governing” party in the House and when to act as the “loyal opposition.”
Facilitate the Conduct of Business
To expedite the work of the House, a wide range of other responsibilities is
typically performed by the majority leader. For example, the majority leader may ask
unanimous consent that when the House adjourns that it meet again at a specific date
and time. He or she may ask unanimous consent to dispense with the Calendar
Wednesday rule. The majority leader may either appoint people to certain boards or
commissions or be self-named to various commissions or boards. He or she may
lead congressional delegations to different parts of the world. The majority leader
may act as Speaker pro tempore; offer resolutions affecting the operations of the
House, such as establishing the hour of daily meeting of the House; perform various
ceremonial duties; and support initiatives to revamp or reform the internal procedures
and structures of the House. In brief, the majority leader is responsible, along with
other Members of the leadership, for insuring the orderly conduct of House business.
22 See Ethan Wallison, “Adding DeLay Makes It a ‘Gang of Five’,” Roll Call, Mar. 6, 2003,
23 Juliet Eilperin, “Mideast Rises on DeLay’s Agenda,” The Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2003,
The majority leader, former Speaker “Tip” O’Neill once said, “helps set policy24
and carries out the duties assigned to him by the Speaker.” One of the most
important duties of the majority leader is to try to ensure that his or her party remains
in control of the House. After all, legislative organization is party organization. The
majority party sets the agenda of the House and controls all committee and
subcommittee chairmanships. Thus, along with other party leaders and Members, the
majority leader works in numerous ways to help elect and reelect rank-and-file
partisan colleagues, to forge unity on priority legislation, and to promote a favorable
public image of the majority party. Three activities of the majority leader illustrate
Assist Colleagues’ Reelection Campaigns
Majority leaders are typically energetic campaigners on behalf of their partisan
colleagues. They assist incumbents and challengers in raising campaign funds, and
they travel to scores of House districts to campaign with either incumbents or
challengers of their party. Majority leaders develop computer-based campaign donor
lists, so they can funnel campaign funds quickly to electoral contests; establish their
own “leadership PACs” to raise money and then donate money from their political
action committee to candidates of their party; help to raise large sums of money so
campaign ads can be run on television and elsewhere in the months leading up to the
November election; and coordinate their campaign activities with congressional,
national, and state party campaign organizations and encourage outside groups and
allies to raise money for the party. Majority leaders assist in recruiting qualified
challengers to take on incumbents. They promote get-out-the-vote drives, in part by
devising strategies to energize their party’s grassroots supporters. In short, majority
leaders are heavily engaged in the electoral campaigns of many party candidates.
Their ultimate goals: to retain their majority status and, if possible, to increase the
number in their ranks.
Promote the Party’s Agenda
Majority leaders may undertake a variety of actions to accomplish this goal.
They develop legislative agendas and themes that address issues important to core
supporters and swing voters in the electorate. These agendas may be posted on their
websites. A key aim of this form of “message sending” is to animate and activate
their electoral base to turn out on election day. Another objective is to develop
electorally attractive ideas and proposals that may enable their party to retain or
retake the House, the Senate, or even the presidency.
The majority leader may help to organize “town meetings” in Members’
districts, which publicize and promote the party’s agenda or a specific priority, such
as health care or tax cuts. He or she may sponsor party “retreats” to discuss issues
and to evaluate the party’s public image. The majority leader may also distribute
24 O’Neill, Man of the House, pp. 218-219.
reports, memorandums, briefing books, and videotapes that highlight partisan
campaign issues; conduct surveys of party colleagues to discern their priorities;
organize “issue teams” or “task forces” composed of junior and senior lawmakers to
formulate specific party programs; and form “message groups” or “theme teams” to
map media strategies to foster favorable press coverage of party initiatives.
Sometimes the majority leader will attend partisan luncheons with Senators to
better coordinate inter-chamber action on the party’s legislative and message agenda.
“We’re having more bicameral meetings,” remarked a majority leader, “so that ... we
understand what each other is doing ... and what can and can’t be done.”25 Majority
leaders are also named as conferees on major bills “to represent the overall interests
of the [majority] leadership.”26 In brief, the majority leader is a key strategist in
promoting the party’s agenda, in outlining ways to neutralize the opposition’s
arguments and proposals, and in determining when it is better to compromise with
the other party on policy priorities or have no agreement.
Encourage Party Cohesion
If a party is to maintain its majority, it is generally a good idea to minimize
internal factional feuds or disagreements that may undermine its ability to govern the
House. One majority leader explained this job as a “combination of evangelist,
parish priest, and part-time prophet. You have to be a peacemaker in the family.”27
To forge party cohesion means, in part, that majority leaders will consult widely with
the diverse factions within their party; they will argue the need for party loyalty on
crucial procedural and substantive votes; they will try to offer persuasive arguments
that “educate” colleagues on a measure’s policy and political benefits; and they will
schedule breakfasts, lunches, or dinners to keep in touch with party members and to
listen to their concerns. Aiding the majority leader in these efforts is his membership
on various party units, such as policy committees or the committee-on-committees.
Majority leaders may also enlist the support of outsiders, such as lobbyists, to
assist in building party cohesion. In fact, majority leaders may develop an external
network of contacts in universities, think tanks, or consulting firms to function as an
informal “brain trust” in policy development and in strategic analysis, suggesting
how the majority party might mobilize the support required to enact their ideas into
law. Majority leaders, then, work to boost their party’s fortunes internally and
externally by acting as a political cheerleader, negotiator, consensus-builder, and
25 Alan Ota, “DeLay Sees Improvement in Communications Between House, Senate
Leaders,” CQ Today, Mar. 3, 2005, p. 6.
26 Alan Ota, “Hastert Calls on DeLay as ‘Super Conferee’,” CQ Today, May 23, 2005, p. 1.
27 Malone, “To Jim Wright, Being Majority Leader is One Long Juggling Routine,” p. 40.
The majority leader’s duties and functions, although not well-defined and
contingent in part on his or her relationship with the Speaker, have evolved to the
point where it is possible to highlight the customary institutional and party
responsibilities. As one majority leader said about his institutional duties: “The
Majority Leader has prime responsibility for the day-to-day working of the House,
the schedule, working with the committees to keep an eye out for what bills are
coming, getting them scheduled, getting the work of the House done, making the
place function correctly.” On the party side, the majority leader added: “[Y]ou are
also compelled to try to articulate to the outside world what [your party stands] for,28
what [your party is] fighting for, what [your party is] doing.”
28 Christopher Madison, “Message Bearer,” National Journal, Dec. 1, 1990, p. 2906.
Appendix 1. House Majority Leaders, 1899-2006
Sereno E. Payne, R-NY56th (1899-1901)
Oscar W. Underwood, D-AL62nd (1911-1913)
Claude Kitchin, D-NC64th (1915-1917)
Franklin W. Mondell, R-WY66th (1919-1921)
Nicholas Longworth, R-OH68th (1923-1925)
John Q. Tilson, R-CT69th (1925-1927)
Henry T. Rainey, D-IL72nd (1931-1933)
Joseph W. Byrns, D-TN73rd (1933-1935)
William B. Bankhead, D-ALa74th (1935-1937)
Sam Rayburn, D-Texas75th (1937-1939)
Rayburn/John W. McCormack, D-MAb76th (1939-1941)
Charles A. Halleck, R-IN80th (1947-1949)
McCormack/Carl Albert, D-OKc87th (1961-1963)
Hale Boggs, D-LA92nd (1971-1973)
Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., D-Mass.93rd (1973-1975)
Jim Wright, D-TX95th (1977-1979)
Thomas S. Foley, D-WA100th (1987-1989)
Foley/Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.d101st (1989-1991)
Richard Armey, R-TX104th (1995-1997)
Tom DeLay, R-TX108th (2003-2005)
DeLay/John Boehner, R-OHe109th (2005-2007)
Sources: Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to Congress, Fifth Edition, Vol. II, Washington, DC: CQ
Press, 2000), pp. 1102-1103; George Archibald, “GOP Elevates DeLay To House Majority Leader,”
The Washington Times, November 14, 2002, p. A1; Susan Ferrechio and Alan Ota, “Charge Takes
DeLay Out of Lineup,” CQ Today, September 29, 2005, p. 1; and Alan Ota, “Upset Win Comes With
Expectations,” CQ Today, February 3, 2006, p. 1.
a. Bankhead became Speaker of the House on June 4, 1936. The post of majority leader remained
vacant until the next Congress.
b. McCormack became majority leader on Sept. 26, 1940, filling the vacancy caused by the elevation
of Rayburn to the post of Speaker of the House on Sept. 16, 1940.
c. Albert became majority leader on January 10, 1962, filling the vacancy caused by the elevation of
McCormack to the post of Speaker of the House, also on January 10.
d. Gephardt became majority leader on June 14, 1989, filling the vacancy created when Foley
succeeded Wright as Speaker of the House on June 6, 1989.
e. On September 25, 2005, Majority Leader DeLay stepped down from his post. Majority Whip Roy
Blunt, R-MO, served as interim majority leader until Ohio Republican John Boehner was elected
to be the new majority leader on February 2, 2006, by the House Republican Conference.