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King of the Hill: House Leadership

The Congressional newspaper Roll Call recently ran a front-page article speculating as to who among the up-and-coming Democratic U.S. Representatives will rise in the ranks of leadership, once their current leaders are no longer in power. Although Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s daughter has said she would like to retire, Pelosi’s staff denied that report, and there hasn’t been much talk about the party’s future leaders. Why does Roll Call bother discussing the House Democrats’ intraparty power struggles when there is currently a clear chain of command?

As with the national, state, and local branches of the Democratic and Republican parties, each party in Congress has a number of leaders to direct their colleagues’ activities. Party leaders play important roles that affect the success of the Members they seek to lead. Good leaders help Members accomplish their three main goals:  getting reelected, enacting good policy and gaining power within the Congress.  Party leaders formulate national policies and then use their procedural authority to pass them.  They go public with policy positions designed to influence elections and persuade independents to support their party.  They help recruit candidates and raise money for vulnerable incumbents so they can keep their majority or reclaim it, if in the minority.  Additionally, they serve as their colleagues’ link to the President, the press, the public, and their party’s volunteers and donors.

In short, they are what noted political scientist Roger Davidson calls “agents of the members who select them and charge them with acting on their behalf.”

In the House, the Speaker stands at the top of the leadership hierarchy. Since he controls the flow of legislation in the House, the Speaker is the Lower Chamber’s most powerful officer. All U.S. Representatives are eligible to vote for the Speaker, but, practically speaking, it is a decision of the House majority. They have their own election before the Congress convenes, and when the time comes to formally vote for the Speaker, the majority generally supports its candidate en masse. Our current Speaker is Representative John Boehner of Ohio.

Beneath the Speaker is the House Majority Leader, who manages the House Floor calendar. The Majority Whip is third in command and responsible for gauging how many Members will support a piece of legislation and, more generally, what his party’s sentiment on an issue is. The Majority Leader is Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia and the Majority Whip is Representative Kevin McCarthy of California.

Likewise, the minority party has the Minority Leader and the Minority Whip, whose functions mirror their majority counterparts. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California is the leader of the minority and Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland is her Whip. Please, however, do not call them “Minority Leader” and “Minority Whip”. Those terms have virtually disappeared. “Democratic Leader” and “Democratic Whip” are the preferred titles. This tradition was started by an act of friendship between Sam Rayburn and his Republican counterpart Joe Martin. When the Democrats lost their majority in 1947 and Martin replaced Rayburn as Speaker, Rayburn asked his close personal friend if he could be called the “Democratic Leader” instead of “Minority Leader”, a request the affable Martin cheerfully granted. When the Democrats once again won a majority in the House, Speaker Rayburn gladly extended the same courtesy to Martin, who became the House Republican Leader.

Both parties also have organizations within the House—the Republican Conference and the Democratic Caucus—that serve their party’s entire membership. Both the Democratic Caucus and the Republican Conference have a Chairman and Vice Chairman, and the Republican Conference has a Secretary as well. These leaders “are primarily responsible for external communications and messaging responsibilities, as well as communications and liaison duties with the entire membership including regular meetings of the membership to discuss strategy, internal rules, the legislative agenda and other matters relevant to the entire membership,” according to Surviving Inside Congress. Each side also has Members who oversee the party’s campaign efforts and development of policy proposals.

Before each Congress begins—and during the middle of one, if a vacancy occurs—the Members of the majority and minority parties meet to elect the officers for the positions listed above. Many—perhaps most—Americans are unaware of these elections, but they are crucial to the direction of the nation, owing to the fact that these men and women, especially the Speaker, set the agenda for the Chamber for the next two years. They are also vital because the Members elected to the lower positions have a very good track record of moving up the ranks to higher office and may be around for a long time. Fifteen of the last sixteen people to hold the Speakership had been elected leaders of their parties before serving as the nation’s top legislator. Since the positions of Majority and Minority Leaders were created in the late 19th century, 15 have gone on to become Speakers of the House. One Whip—Newt Gingrich—jumped directly to the Speakership. (Representative Bob Michel, the outgoing Minority Leader, retired before the new Republican majority was sworn in.) Eleven Whips have gone on to become the Majority or Minority Leader. An additional Whip served as interim Majority Leader during the position’s vacancy. The leadership tenures can be particularly long. For 24 years, Sam Rayburn served either as Majority Leader or Speaker or minority Democratic Leader. His successor, John McCormack was Majority Leader and then Speaker for 29 years. Carl Albert, who followed McCormack, was Majority Leader and then Speaker for 14 years. Granted, in recent times, starting with Speaker Tip O’Neill, not all leaders persevere for so long. However, provided there are no scandals and the party does reasonably well, a Member can enjoy quite a long leadership tenure. Even losing the House does not spell a leader’s doom, as Nancy Pelosi has demonstrated by retaining leadership of her party for the 112th Congress.. (Lists of the Speakers, Majority and Minority Leaders, and Republican and Democratic Whips can be found at the website of the Clerk of the House.)

When the Members support a colleague for a leadership position, they are not simply focused on the fortunes of the party within the Chamber. A crucial question for the Members is whether the prospective leader will present citizens with a positive image for the national party. That question was central in two elections that were necessary for current and immediate past Speakers’ ascents in their respective parties’ hierarchies. In 2006, Speaker Boehner was elected Majority Leader after Representative Tom DeLay resigned in scandal. The Washington Post reported, “Boehner…called for change to prove to voters that the Republican Party [was] taking the corruption scandal seriously.” Likewise, when Leader Pelosi was elected Democratic Whip in 2001, the party asked itself whether she, from liberal San Francisco, could better appeal to the voters across the country than Representative Steny Hoyer, who is from a more moderate District in Maryland. According to The New York Times, Hoyer argued that his experience representing a “swing district” would allow him to “fashion a more compelling message for the districts [the Democrats] have to win”. Pelosi also said she was the stronger contender to help them win elections since she was secure in her seat and could afford to work with candidates. Both the parties were justified in asking themselves which candidate would serve their image best: In the run up to the 2010 Congressional elections, the Democrats tried to make Boehner out to be the face of Washington’s dysfunction, and the Republicans painted Pelosi as the instigator of the massive growth of government. In fact, given the national wave against the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2010, it is safe to say that Speaker Pelosi appeared in more Republican advertisements than Democrat ones.

Although many Americans might not be aware of these races, they can be hard fought, with contenders and their supporters using a variety of different tactics to secure victory. In the run-up to the elections, contenders and their closest allies will canvass their colleagues, and Members will often publicly support a candidate. That is just the beginning. Every vote counts, so challengers will go to great lengths to round up Members in support. On the day of the 2001 Democratic Whip election, Pelosi had cars on hand to chauffeur her supporters to the Capitol if they needed a ride. One of her supporters, Robert Underwood, the Delegate from Guam, chartered a plane from his island to Japan to catch a flight back to Washington so he could arrive in time to vote. (A Delegate is Member from one of the U.S. territories that may not vote for legislation, but is permitted to vote in elections for party leadership.) As time was running out to vote, a staffer for a Pelosi supporter personally escorted one Member from his office to the Cannon Caucus Room. In his 2006 race for House Majority Leader, Boehner and Representative John Shadegg, who was also in the race, criticized Whip Roy Blunt for not debating them on TV. Not all the pressure comes from within the House. According to Robert Remini’s official history of the body, The House, in 1971, Carl Albert was elected Speaker with only very little opposition from John Conyers, who ran to protest the former’s decision not to support an effort to strip a few Southern Democrats of their seniority. Representative Dan Rostenkowski, then Chairman of the Democratic Caucus, reported that Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago instructed him to tell a number of Illinois Democrats not to endorse Albert, despite his wide support.  With stakes as high as these, though, it’s only a wonder we don’t hear of tougher tactics.

Right now, it is not the best time for potential leaders to break out the Chicago-style politics. Future Democratic leaders will now slowly build their connections among their colleagues. After all, Nancy Pelosi has been her party’s top leader only since 2004, so she may have a few years left. Then Steny Hoyer will probably want his turn in office, followed by Jim Clyburn, if he sticks around long enough. So up-and-comers such as Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chris Van Hollen, and all the other likely future leaders Roll Call mentioned will probably have to wait a bit longer. On the other hand, each of the current leaders is getting on in years, so you never know. Retirement always looks inviting. Whenever a vacancy does occur, though, it will probably some of the most interesting politics the public will never see.

Works Consulted

Remini, Robert. The House: The History of the House of Representatives. New York: HaperCollins-Smithsonian, 2006.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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