The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership

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Matthew N. Green provides the first comprehensive analysis of how the Speaker of the House has exercised legislative leadership from 1940 to the present. Green finds that the Speaker’s party loyalty is tempered by a host of competing objectives, including reelection, passage of desired public policy laws, handling the interests of the president, and meeting the demands of the House as a whole.

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Editorial Reviews

Congress & the Presidency - David T. Canon
". . . a very fine book. Anyone interested in legislative leadership should read this book."—David T. Canon, Congress & the Presidency
Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation - 2013 D. B. Hardeman Prize Finalist
 Finalist for the 2013 D. B. Hardeman Prize, given by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300153187
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/25/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 881,379
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Matthew Green is Assistant Professor of Politics at Catholic University of America.

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The Speaker of the House

A Study of Leadership

By Matthew N. Green


Copyright © 2010 Matthew Green
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-15319-4



"An Office of Great Honor and Influence": The Speaker of the House of Representatives

As the moment of the vote approached, few were sure what would happen. It was June 2003, and the House of Representatives was considering one of the most important bills of the 108th Congress. The bill was a Republican measure to expand Medicare, the popular federal health care program for seniors, to include prescription drugs. If enacted, it would represent arguably the greatest enlargement of the American social welfare state since the creation of Medicare itself. But the legislation was contentious, invoking dissention within and across both parties. Democrats, who held a minority of seats in the House, claimed that the proposal did not provide sufficient benefit coverage. They opposed many of its elements, particularly the creation of a free market-style mechanism to induce competition with private insurance plans. Some legislators from both parties wanted the bill to allow importation of less expensive medications from other countries—primarily Canada—as a means of reducing drug costs and were against its requirement that such drugs first be certified for safety. Furthermore, a solid bloc of conservative Republicans hesitated at the expansion of Medicare benefits, especially at an estimated cost of $400 billion over ten years (an estimate that would later double). As a result, even with a 229 to 204 seat majority in the House, Republicans faced possible defeat. Days of extensive lobbying by party leaders and White House officials had converted many erstwhile GOP opponents, but the measure remained as many as twenty votes shy of passage (Adams 2003; Franzen 2003).

Nonetheless, party leaders gambled that the pressure of a floor vote would bring enough legislators their way. When the voting began on June 27, at around 2:00 in the morning, the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert of Illinois—who, along with other Republican Party leaders, had lobbied members of his caucus to support the measure—was on the floor, ready to lobby again. Hastert had already put months of work into the legislation, including negotiating details of the proposal with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), House committee chairmen with jurisdiction over the bill, and Republican President George W. Bush, who had placed the measure high on his legislative agenda.

After the customary seventeen minutes for voting expired, the bill was losing, 210–214. But rather than accept defeat, Hastert ignored custom. Using his authority as Speaker, he kept the voting clock open and, with other Republican leaders, began searching the floor for more votes. A former high school wrestler and wrestling coach, Hastert was soon "towering over problem members" and asking for their support (Franzen 2003). He made progress, but after thirty minutes, he still needed at least two opponents to switch their votes for the measure to pass. C. L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican conservative from Idaho, eventually changed his vote to yes, and Hastert and other leaders focused their attention on Missouri Representative Jo Ann Emerson, one of the Republicans opposed to the bill's limits on importing cheaper medications. Hastert promised her that he would schedule a future vote to permit drug reimportation, and Emerson (tearful, by some accounts) went to the well of the chamber and voted yes. With the tally now at 216 to 215, Hastert immediately ended the vote (Adams 2003; Allen and Graham-Silverman 2003; Dewar and Goldstein 2003; Franzen 2003; Hastert 2004).

This was not the only occasion when Speaker Hastert used his authority so dramatically to steer legislative outcomes in a desired direction, nor was he the first Speaker to do so. In 1941, for instance, Sam Rayburn (D-TX) used personal lobbying, swift closure of a floor vote, and other methods to successfully extend the Selective Service Act by a single vote. Some Speakers have gone so far as to exercise leadership on measures that were only weakly supported, or even opposed, by their own party in the House. In November 1993, Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) worked with President Bill Clinton, albeit cautiously, to successfully ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement over the opposition of a majority of his own party.

Why do Speakers sometimes act as assertive legislative leaders? What purpose motivates them to use their influence strategically to achieve legislative outcomes, even if those outcomes are resisted by many members of their own party? The answers to these questions, I argue, stem from the desire of every Speaker to satisfy key goals or objectives. The Speaker does not merely want to remain the favored leader of fellow partisans in the House; other objectives, derived from constitutional structure and the broader political environment, drive his or her behavior as much as do the preferences and electoral needs of the congressional majority party. The wish to satisfy these goals provides the basis for assertive, cross-partisan, and at times even independent legislative leadership on behalf of a variety of institutions or individuals. Thus while the majority party is the Speaker's most important constituency, the party's preferences may compete or join together with the preferences of other important players that matter to the Speaker, including the president, the legislature as a whole, constituents in the Speaker's congressional district, or even the Speaker himself or herself. Hastert's actions on the Medicare bill illustrate this phenomenon: not only did the measure's passage give credit-claiming opportunities to Hastert's party in Congress, but it was also an important priority for the president and an issue of considerable personal interest to the Speaker (Franzen 2003).

The Speaker of the House is an unusual office. Although it is one of the few specified in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, section 2), the Constitution says very little about its purpose, responsibilities, or proper role in national governance. The origins of the office go back at least as far as thirteenth century England, when the House of Commons was headed by a "Speaker." Over time, the role of the British Speaker shifted from representing the interests of the Crown within the legislature to serving more partisan interests in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, finally, to presiding as a nonpartisan officer starting in the early nineteenth century. Legislative bodies in the American colonies also adopted the office of Speaker, but they did so at a time when the Speaker of the House of Commons was in its partisan phase of existence. As a consequence, by 1789 the most common experience of the Speakership in the former colonies was as a presiding officer with party-related duties (Fuller 1909, 1–17; Galloway 1976, 133; Peters 1997, 18–20). The Speaker of the U.S. House thus became a position with a hybrid of both partisan and nonpartisan responsibilities. By contrast, Speakers in other Anglo legislatures, like those in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, have hewn more closely to the role of nonpartisan officer, though their selection from within the parliament presents the possibility of at least informal ties to their party or constituency.

There are several reasons why the Speaker of the House, and his or her reasons for exercising leadership, are worthy of detailed study. First, because the Speakership is the only leadership position in Congress whose existence and method of selection is mandated by the Constitution, the office possesses considerable prestige. Second, the Speaker has a number of important internal duties and powers, such as establishing rule-making precedents, evaluating points of order related to floor procedure, referring legislation to committees, and influencing legislators' committee assignments. Perhaps the most important of these duties is the Speaker's ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the House enacts legislation —its fundamental task. Other House party officers may also help with that task, but they also usually have other day-to-day duties (setting the weekly calendar, for instance) that the Speaker does not. Only the Senate majority leader, a position that did not formally exist until the early twentieth century, is comparable in power. In short, as House historian George Galloway described it, the Speakership "is an office of great honor and influence" (1955, 346).

Third, a study of how, when, and why the Speaker exercises leadership addresses a continuing debate over the proper conceptualization of congressional leadership. On one hand, as noted above, few political offices in American government possess greater authority than that of the Speaker. On the other hand, many scholars have identified significant constraints on the powers of leaders in Congress. They point out that these leaders, including the Speaker, face considerable risks when acting in ways that run contrary to the preferences of the party caucus that selects them. They also note that elements of the political environment—for instance, the decentralized nature of Congress, the weakness of congressional party structures, and the absence of centralized control over significant rewards and benefits—sharply limit what these leaders can accomplish. Thus even strong Speakers, like the infamous Joseph "Czar" Cannon from the early 1900s, are often described by scholars as "followers" or "agents" of their own party in the legislature, rarely able to exercise decisive organizational leadership except when the outcome is desired by their congressional party or by a majority of the House (Burns 1978, 345; Krehbiel and Wiseman 2001; Riker 1986, 129–30; Sinclair 1995, 1999). This depiction of the Speaker as a constrained party agent is common in research studies that focus solely on the association between the House majority party and party leaders' behavior. These studies, however, understate the Speaker's independence from his or her party in Congress and fail to acknowledge the leadership goals that Speakers may achieve by acting both strategically and more autonomously. In this respect, I adopt the perspective of scholarly works that have identified how congressional leaders can be forceful and independent, such as Randall Strahan's analysis of selected House Speakers, Steven Smith's review of congressional leaders' direct and indirect sources of influence, and Charles Jones's discussion of Speaker Cannon and committee chairman Howard Smith (Jones 1968; Smith 2007; Strahan 2007).

Finally, understanding what drives the Speaker to exercise leadership has important applications beyond congressional politics. Speakers and party leaders in other national legislatures often have formal powers analogous to those of the U.S. Speaker and operate within similar institutions and political contexts—particularly those in presidential systems of government, as can be found in Latin America and elsewhere. More generally, political leaders (including the Speaker) can structure and limit the choices of others, undertake political and social reform, bring about procedural and policy changes within bureaucratic agencies, initiate significant institutional developments, or drive major political change more broadly (Burns 1978; Carpenter 2001; Miroff 2004; Riker 1986). Thus understanding not only what the U.S. Speaker does but also why he or she does it can provide useful insights into how and why leaders in other institutions and political contexts do what they do.

Speakers exercise leadership in a variety of ways. In examining why they seek to shape legislative outcomes, even when facing resistance from their own partisans, I focus on Speakers' legislative leadership in Congress, defined as the mobilization of resources to engage the interests of followers with respect to the legislative output of the House (Burns 1978, 18). Of all leadership behaviors in which Speakers may engage, legislative leadership is perhaps the most important to understand, since Speakers are judged on (if not presumably responsible for) legislative results and the ability to build substantive majorities in the House (Jones 1968). To explain their leadership on legislation, I build a series of original data sets to identify and analyze several kinds of legislative leadership as exercised by the nine Speakers who have served from 1941 through 2006 (listed in table 1.1). These Speakers differ in important ways—in their leadership style, degree of formal authority, and overall skill. More generally, however, they can be considered comparable insofar as they share several important features: the existence of the "modern" presidency, starting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt; general agreement on the Speaker's parliamentary versus partisan responsibilities; and a well-developed and firmly established set of leadership tools (Corwin 1940, 330–37; Peters 1997).

Speakers may exercise legislative leadership in several major spheres, including activity on the floor of the House, the content of the legislative agenda, the substance of particular legislation, and the behavior of committees. In a later chapter, I examine leadership in the latter three spheres (and in others as well), but the primary focus of this book is the first: Speakers' behavior during, or in proximity to, consideration of legislation on the House floor. This sort of behavior tends to involve at least one of five tactics: labeling a bill as "party policy" or a "party measure"; trading scarce benefits for votes; personally lobbying individual Representatives to vote in one direction; delivering floor statements that advocate a certain vote outcome; and extending or limiting the time available to vote on the floor. The House floor is a particularly useful focal point for studying Speakers' legislative leadership. Since a bill must pass on the floor in some form to become law, the floor serves as the common arena for all legislative matters and the place where Speakers' strategic action can be best observed and evaluated. Speakers also have a measure of equality with all other legislators on the floor, in that each representative may vote, speak, or even introduce legislation. This allows one to compare the behavior of the Speaker with that of the majority party's rank and file and to compare different Speakers across time while holding most formal authority constant (though not all, because unlike his or her colleagues, the Speaker is also the House's official presiding officer). Focusing on the floor presents a test of whether Speakers can influence legislator vote choice, absent most of the other powers that give them an institutional advantage over other members of Congress. By contrast, non-floor spheres of leadership activity are difficult to connect to legislative results or are largely unobserved and thus exceedingly challenging to verify. In short, an examination of floor leadership can contribute to our understanding of the legislative process and the extent to which the Speaker affects political outcomes.


The idea that the Speaker exercises leadership on behalf of other individuals or entities besides the House majority party is not new. Speakers themselves have noted that the duties of the office encompass several, sometimes conflicting, expectations (Albert 1976; O'Neill 1987, 327–28; Wright 1994). Some who study Congress have pointed to the president, the Senate, the Speaker's policy preferences, and his or her leadership style as other important influences (Evans and Oleszek 1999a; Palazzolo 1992; Peters 1997; Ripley 1969; Strahan 2007; Vega and Peters 1996). Most relevant studies fail to provide theoretical justifications for the significance of these other factors or test their explanatory value for only a single Speaker or a limited number of leadership cases. Nonetheless, they do point the way toward a more complete and accurate explanation of why the modern Speaker of the House commits acts of legislative leadership.

Congressional leaders, as with legislators in general, are purposive actors: they have certain goals or objectives they wish to achieve while in Congress (Strahan 2007). In his book Congressmen in Committees, Richard Fenno identified three basic legislator goals: reelection, passage of desired public policy, and internal influence in the legislature. Since Fenno's book, a number of other scholars have adopted this "multiple goals" approach in analyzing Congress, using these three goals as a starting point to explain committee selection, the internal organization and rules of the legislature, and leadership structure and authority (for example, Fenno 1973a; Schickler 2001; Sinclair 1995; Smith 2007).

Studies of congressional leaders, while acknowledging that leaders in Congress have goals, generally focus almost entirely on one goal—their reelection as leader—to explain their behavior. Emphasizing the partisan nomination process of the Speaker and other party leaders, these analyses assume that their actions are designed to satisfy the interests of the majority party, so that they can obtain and maintain their leadership positions (for example, Sinclair 1995, 65–66). This assumption provides a powerful and parsimonious explanation for leadership behavior, identifying the critically important relationship between leaders and the people who place them in their positions of authority. But such a narrow view of leadership goals is incomplete in at least two ways. First, it does not acknowledge that congressional leaders are also members of Congress and thus face an additional reelection goal: reelection to the legislature. This goal may lead them to exercise leadership on behalf of the policy preferences of their district or state constituencies. As the 1994 election defeat of Speaker Tom Foley aptly demonstrated, there is always a possibility that a Speaker can lose his or her House seat. Second, it neglects other important leadership goals that may lead to the exercise of legislative leadership on behalf of other individuals, institutions, or entities.

Excerpted from The Speaker of the House by Matthew N. Green. Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Green. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments....................     vii     

1 "An Office of Great Honor and Influence": The Speaker of the House of
Representatives....................     1     

2 Speaking and Voting on the House Floor....................     23     

3 Sam Rayburn and John McCormack....................     60     

4 Speaker Leadership in the Reform and Post-Reform House...................     111     

5 Leadership beyond the Floor, 1941–1998....................     157     

6 The Hastert Speakership....................     184     

7 Goal-Oriented Leadership: Trends and Implications....................     203     

Appendix A: Sources and Use of Data....................     223     

Appendix B: Categorizing Instances of Floor Voting....................     229     

Notes....................     233     

Bibliography....................     259     

Index....................     281     

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