Party Leaders in the House: Election, Duties, and Responsibilities

Party Leaders in the House:
Election, Duties, and Responsibilities
Valerie Heitshusen
Analyst on the Congress and Legislative Process
Government and Finance Division
Each major party in the House has a leadership hierarchy. This report summarizes
the election, duties, and responsibilities of the Speaker of the House, the majority and
minority leaders, and the whips and whip system. For a listing of all past occupants of
congressional party leadership positions, see CRS Report RL30567, Party Leaders in
Congress, 1789-2009. For more information on legislative process, see
[] .1
Speaker of the House
The Speaker is elected by the House on the first day of a new Congress.
Customarily, the caucus or conference of each major party first elects a candidate at early
organizational meetings. When the new Congress convenes, each party places the name
of its candidate in nomination, and the majority party’s candidate is typically elected onth
a party line vote. A rules change adopted at the beginning of the 108 Congress requires
the Speaker to submit the names of Members designated to serve as Speaker pro tempore
in the event that the speakership becomes vacant, or in the event the Speaker is disabled.
House rules invest the Speaker with substantial powers.2 These duties include, but are not
limited to
!administering the oath of office to Members;
!recognizing Members for the purpose of speaking or making motions;
!referring bills and resolutions to committees;
!putting questions to a vote of Members;

1 Thomas P. Carr, former Analyst in American National Government at CRS, originally wrote
this report. The listed author has updated the report and is available to respond to inquiries on
the subject.
2 The Speaker has other powers specified in law, typically relating to appointing either occupants
of House offices (e.g., the Parliamentarian) or members of various commissions and advisory
boards. On the latter authority, see CRS Report RL33313, Congressional Commissions,
Committees, Boards, and Groups: Appointment Authority and Membership, by Matthew Eric

!declaring a quorum (or the absence of one);
!counting and declaring all votes;
!deciding points of order;
!appointing House Members to select and conference committees;
!exercising additional committee appointment authority under party
conference rules;
!making appointments to fill temporary vacancies in House administrative
!appointing the Chair of the Committee of the Whole and the Speaker pro
tempore; and
!signing all bills and resolutions passed by the House.
Traditionally, the Speaker has no formal committee assignments, but serves as an ex
officio member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.3 The Speaker
infrequently votes or participates in floor debate. Although not prescribed in any formal
way, the Speaker is the principal spokesperson for the House and, oftentimes, for the
party, taking a leading role in negotiations with the Senate and President.
When in the majority, each party designates the Speaker as chair its committee
assignment panel, which assigns party members to standing committee slots, subject to
conference or caucus approval and House election. According to both Democratic Caucus
and Republican Conference rules, a Speaker from the respective party organization also
makes nominations (for conference consideration) for membership on the Committee on
Rules and the Committee on House Administration, nominates those committees’ chairs,
and also appoints one Member to serve on the Budget Committee. Caucus and
conference rules also give the Speaker some appointment authority for chairs of his or her
party’s internal committees.4 (See CRS Report 97-780, The Speaker of the House: House
Officer, Party Leader, and Representative; and CRS Report RL30857, Speakers of the
House: Elections, 1913-2007.)
Majority Leader
The majority leader is second to the Speaker in the party hierarchy. Elected by secret
ballot of the majority party’s caucus or conference in organizational meetings prior to the
start of a new Congress, the majority leader’s role has largely been defined by history and
tradition. Working closely with the Speaker and the party’s whips, the majority leader is
charged with scheduling legislation for floor consideration, and does not, in modern
practice, serve on House committees. The majority leader helps plan daily, weekly, and
annual legislative agendas; consults with Members to gauge sentiment on issues; urges
colleagues to support or defeat measures on the floor; and, in general, works to advance

3 The Speaker’s ex-officio membership, as well as that of the Minority Leader discussed below,
is pursuant to House Rule X, clause 11(a)(2). U.S. Congress, House of Representatives,
Constitution, Jefferson’s Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives, One Hundred Tenththnd
Congress, compiled by John V. Sullivan, Parliamentarian, 109 Cong., 2 sess., H.Doc. 109-157
(Washington: GPO, 2007).
4 Examples include the party’s policy committee or its campaign committee. See 110th Congress
House Republican Conference Rules; and 110th Congress House Democratic Caucus Rules.

the goals of the majority party. The majority leader is also responsible for closely
watching floor activities, especially the opposition party’s parliamentary maneuvers, but
by custom, does not typically lead floor debate on major measures. (See CRS Report
RL30665, The Role of the House Majority Leader: An Overview.)
Minority Leader
The minority leader is both the minority party’s counterpart to the Speaker, and the
floor leader of the “loyal opposition.” Elected by the minority party caucus or conference
at organizational meetings prior to the start of a new Congress, the minority leader speaks
for the minority party and its policies. The minority leader strives to protect the
minority’s rights, organizes and leads criticism of the majority party, and devises
parliamentary strategies and tactics that can put to best use the abilities of his party to
influence legislative outcomes. The minority leader chairs the party’s committee
assignment panel and also directly nominates or appoints minority party members to serve
on certain standing committees.5 Like the Speaker, the minority leader serves as an ex
officio member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. When the minority
leader’s party holds the White House, the minority leader may be the President’s chief
spokesperson in the House. By custom, the minority leader does not typically lead floor
debate on major measures. (See CRS Report RL30666, The Role of the House Minority
Leader: An Overview.)
Party Whips
Republican and Democratic party whips are elected by each party caucus at early
organizational meetings. Each majority and minority whip heads an extensive whip
network comprised of party loyalists. Each party selects at least one chief deputy whip
and a number of deputy and other whips.6 The job of the whips is to maintain
communication between the leadership of the party and its members, marshal support for
party positions on the floor, count votes on key legislation, and persuade wavering
Members to vote for the party position. Whip notices and advisories to all party members
about the legislative agenda are staple products of both parties’ whip organizations and
are posted on each party’s website. (See CRS Report RS20499, House Leadership: Whip

5 When in the majority, the conference or caucus rules provide these powers to the Speaker, as
outlined earlier.
6 Each party’s chief deputy whip is appointed by its chief whip; other members of the whip team
are either similarly appointed or elected by subsets of the party organization.