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What is the Role of the Speaker of the House?

  • Yang Chen

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote Thursday on a new Speaker of the House to replace current Speaker John Boehner, who is retiring at the end of the month. Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is expected to win the job after being nominated Wednesday by Republican lawmakers in a closed-door party caucus.

The Speaker of the House is one of the most powerful figures in American politics and second in line of succession for the presidency after the vice president. He's also the top officer of the entire House of Representatives.

Matt Wasniewski, the House Historian, said the Speaker’s role is crucial.

"The Speaker also over the decades has become the chief administrator of the House side of the Capitol. The Speaker makes final decisions pretty much on everything on our (House) side," said Wasniewski.

Catholic University professor Matthew Green said part of the Speaker’s job is representing the House with the Senate, the President and the public .

"And then on top of that, he is the top leader of his party, which is usually how we get him selected. So he's responsible ultimately for helping the party get its legislation enacted, helping with recruiting candidates to run for office, raising money for people to run for office in his party. So he has a lot of responsibilities,” said Green.

Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania became the first House Speaker on April 1, 1789. At the beginning, speakers played more of a parliamentary role than a political one. But time has changed.

"They were, sort of, supposed to keep out of politics or partisan conflict. But gradually in the 19th century, as parties got stronger, Speakers took on more role as party leader. That started in the latter half of the 19th century, and it's continued more or less continually since that," explained Green.

Wasniewski notes other roles of the modern Speaker.

"In more modern Congress, he's someone who can drive policy, someone who is a deal maker, who is able to negotiate with various factions within the party and reach out to the other party," he said.

Important as it is, anyone can be elected for this position, not just the members of the House.

"The Constitution is pretty vague about who can be Speaker. All it says is the House shall choose a Speaker. So as I just pointed out, in theory, anyone can be Speaker. You don't even have to be member of congress," said Green. "You could be Speaker if you wanted. I could run for Speaker if I wanted."

But both experts say, up until now, all 53 Speakers have been members of the House.

The current Speaker, John Boehner, announced his resignation last month -- bringing a tumultuous end to his nearly six-year tenure marked by frequent tension within his own Republican caucus

"This prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution,” said Boehner.

Traditionally, the Speaker of the House is the leader of the majority party. But he is chosen by a majority vote of all 435 members of the House of Representatives.