Speaker of the House: Definition, Role & Duties

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  • 0:04 The House of Representatives
  • 1:02 The Speaker of the House
  • 1:50 What the Speaker Does
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
The Speaker of the House of Representatives is third in line for the presidency and the person most in control of the American legislative process. Learn more about this powerful position in government and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What Is the Speaker of the House?

The U.S. House of Representatives is one half of the U.S. Congress, with the Senate making up the other half. Most Americans have some sense of how this works: each state sends two Senators to Washington, D.C., so every state has exactly the same representation in that body. It's also always an even number - fifty states, one hundred senators. In the House, however, state representation is decided by population - the bigger the state, the more representatives it gets. So, California has 53 members of the House while Alaska, the biggest state in America geographically, only has 1.

Each body has its own leader. In the Senate it's the Majority Leader, who is the head of the majority party. Many people assume that because there are fewer Senators and they each serve a longer term than members of the House (six years, to a congressman's two), that they have a more important job. That's not really the case, as you'll see when we look at the position of Speaker.

The Speaker of the House is the leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives. The Speaker is technically supposed to be non-partisan while serving - that is, he's not supposed to take sides during floor debate. The Speaker is not only in charge of his party, he's in charge of the entire House, a rolling carnival of 435 members that is bigger, louder, and more unruly than the comparatively sedate, cozy Senate.

The Speaker is elected by his own party and can remain in power as long as his party supports him. If the party loses their majority in the House, the Speaker stays at the head of his party and thenceforth is known as the minority leader. Additionally, the Speaker is third in line for the presidency behind the Vice President. There have been sixty-one Speakers since the nation's founding.

What Makes the Speaker a Big Deal?

When the House is in session, the Speaker presides over the floor debate and all meetings. It's during debate that the Speaker seems to flex his muscles; he gets to decide who speaks, in what order, and which motions from the floor are relevant. He also gets to set the rule for debate through the Rules Committee. This means the Speaker can decide how long a given bill will be discussed and under what restrictions. An open rule, for example, means that members can argue about a bill all day and night, if they feel like it, and could amend the bill from the floor. A closed rule, on the other hand, has set time limits and forbids amendments from the floor. The Speaker can have a bill argued to death or moved to a vote in a speedy fashion.

'But what about the Rules Committee?' you might be saying. They're the ones who set the rules; how can the Speaker tell them what to do? This is an excellent point and brings us to where the Speaker can really flex his muscles: committee assignments.

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