The Speaker of the House is the senior figure in the House of Representatives and, as such, is an important figure in American politics. His/her election, to the position is a formality after the majority party in the House selects him/her by the use of the majority party caucus. The current Speaker of the House is Nancy Pelosi. The Speaker is allowed to engage in debate and vote because he/she is an elected member of the House. As a result of the 1947 Presidential Succession Act, the Speaker is next in line to the presidential position after the vice-president.
The Speaker is the “most influential member of the House” (Plano and Greenburg). As the presiding officer, he/she recognises those members who wish to speak. He/she also interprets and applies the rules of the House and he/she decides the order in which business is conducted during the day.
The Speaker also appoints select committees and refers bills to committee. The real power behind the position, is that the Speaker can essentially decide which bill gets a passage through the House and which bill can be killed off.
As the leader of the majority party in the House, the Speaker also plays a major role in shaping and implementing party decisions on forthcoming legislation. Most Speakers have been very able as the position requires. They need to have political acumen, strong leadership qualities and stature.
In 1995, Newt Gingrich showed how powerful the Speaker can be by publishing the “Contract with America” which was a statement of policies America should adopt. He also guided this document through the House’s legislative process.
“Contract with America”
This document was seen to be a comprehensive plan of action needed by America as the 21st century approached. It stated what America should do within 100 days of Congress convening in 1994. The Contract had ten main features:
This became known as the “Republican Revolution” and for the first time in 40 years the voters ‘threw out’ the Democrats from the House and the Senate with overwhelming electoral success for the Republicans in the Congressional elections.
The House passed the Contract but the Senate rewrote, rejected or delayed action on most of the ten points. “The proclamation and passage of a platform is a rarity in America.” (Plano and Greenburg). The Contract even extended to Congress when it had to obey the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 which forced Congress to follow the Fair Labour Standard Act whereby employees in Congress must pay overtime for those who do more than 40 hours work per week as long as they are not “professionals”, “administrators” or “executives”.