Wednesday, April 14, 2010

House of Representatives Party Leadership Introduction

As the highest legislative body in the United States, the US Congress’s primary function is the crafting and passing of new legislation for an ever changing social and political landscape. Within this body, two houses were created, the House of Representatives with proportional representation based on census data and state controlled districting, and the Senate with states receiving equal representation. One of the more interesting aspects of our Congress, however, is the level of vagueness the Constitution left in relation to the way it should be run and how it should conduct its day to day business. While much of the Constitution was intentionally left open for interpretation (with its interpretation being the primary role of the Supreme Court), the Congress has gone on to create an incredibly intricate system of rules and norms that govern the way the laws of this country are proposed, debated and eventually (sometimes) passed. With the outlining of Congress in the Constitution being left open, today’s Congress is a much different beast than what the Constitutional framers would have ever imagined. While the rules on the floor and the parliamentarian system of addressing one another is still quite traditional, the vast system of committees and party politics has made a need for strong and ever present party leadership. Working hard to advance party policies and streamline party line legislation, the function of party leadership, more specifically leadership in the House of Representatives, has become a much more visible and necessary role in today’s modern Congress.

Leadership: Speaker of the House

One of the few details specified by the Constitution over leadership in the House of Representatives is that of the Speaker (Smith 131). Arguably the most visible and powerful member of the United States Congress, the Speaker of the House’s role has changed dramatically in recent years to make the position the true driving force behind the American legislature. While not totally specified by the Constitution that the Speaker must be an actual member of the House, all past speakers have been, and the role of Speaker in today’s Congress is typically held by the majority party’s current leader.
As leader of the majority party, it is the Speaker’s primary role to push the party agenda and work closely with other senior party members to streamline the passing of their legislation. These goals are achieved due to certain powers given to the Speaker. Exercising almost complete control over committee appointments and assignments (especially conference committees where approval of the House is not even required), the strategy of appointments and reassignments is one of the toolsets available to the Speaker to allow for the advancement of party objectives. This appointment power is also coupled with the Speaker’s control over the scheduling of House business day to day. This allows the Speaker the ability to block, delay, or advance any bits of legislation he/she wishes to and adds even more power over the strategy the Speaker weaves for the advancement of party policy areas.
Another interesting facet of the Speaker of the House is their working relationship with the President. While having loyalty to their colleagues within the House and Senate, Speakers, due to Executive involvement in the legislative process outlined in the Constitution, also work with or against (depending on party majorities) the President to advance or delay certain pieces of legislation. While Speakers such as Democrats Thomas O’Neill and James Wright exercised their powers in the 1980s to block and work against the agenda of then President Ronald Reagan, the political climate of the present day sees a great amount of cooperation between Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama. The relationship between the Speaker of the House and the President has created some of the more interesting and intricate political strategies of the last half decade and as a result, has added to the power base of the Speaker on a national political level.

Leadership: Speaker of the House Video

In this video, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D - CA) speaks on the floor, praising committee chairman and senior Democratic leaders on their work for the Cash for Clunkers program. She spends the majority of her time talking solidifying the position of her party and relay the party stance to those on the floor.

Video compliments of C-SPAN Video Archive.

Leadership: Majority and Minority Floor Leaders

While the Speaker of the House wields a great amount of power and influence over the House of Representatives and legislature as a whole, the responsibility and work that goes in to strategizing and coordinating legislation is not simply done by one person (and his/her army of clerks and assistants). The Majority and Minority Floor Leaders play large, albeit very different roles in the way the House works day to day. While both are working towards very different goals and endgame results, the Majority and Minority Leaders act as the voices of their parties on the floor. Generally speaking for or against the legislation of the day or week, the Majority and Minority Leaders work diligently towards party cohesion and the advancement of their policy objectives.
With the Speaker of the House being the leader of the majority party, the Majority Leader is actually the party’s second in command. The Majority Leader’s primary function, as stated early, is the voice of the party and the rallying point for party representatives on the floor. As the Speaker of the House has become a much more visible and media-centric position, Speakers must be tactful in their public appearances and thus rarely speak on the floor. Current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D – CA), for example, has only spoken 7 days (totaling only 1:00:07 time) this year, whereas Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has more than doubled that (Congressional Chronicle). The role of keeping party cohesion and advancement from the day to day thus falls on the Majority Leader who works closely with the Speaker and other senior leaders to voice and coordinate pending legislation.
Coming from a much more difficult position is that of the Minority Leader. The Minority Leader is actually the party leader from the minority party (not second in command like the Majority Leader), and was typically the minority party’s nomination for Speaker of the House. While the job of the Speaker and Majority Leader is a bit easier (by virtue of simply having the majority), it is the Minority Leader’s job to solidify party objectives and attempt to disrupt policy areas and legislation that contradict party goals and objectives. This is done by creating dissent within the majority party and attempting to attract votes from majority representatives so as to disrupt the majority’s ability to pass legislation. Acting very much like a subversive or insurgent against the majority party’s interests, it is the Minority Leaders job to be the voice of the party on the floor and to work towards achieving a majority vote in the next round of elections.

Leadership: Majority and Minority Floor Leaders Videos

In this video, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R - OH) issues a statement over President Obama and Speaker Pelosi's aggression in passing health care reform. As Minority Leader, he speaks over the Republican Party's stance on the matter and mentions alternatives to the proposed plan.

Video compliments of C-SPAN Video Archive.

Leadership: Majority and Minority Whip Structures

Within the rest of the leadership structure exists each party’s Whip Organizations. While structured differently in both parties, Republicans and Democrats both have a number of whips at their disposal to assist party leadership in advancing party objectives. As the leadership’s primary goal is the passing of legislation of particular interest, it is the whips’ responsibility to maintain party order and organize votes ahead of time to insure votes be cast in accordance to party strategy. With the Speaker of the House being responsible for the strategy of passing legislation, whips gather intelligence both on and off the floor so as to assist the Speaker and Majority Leader in making decisions. This information can help leaders in decisions ranging from new appointments or repositioning representatives on committees all the way to making sure that votes on legislation will pass and the most advantageous time to schedule them.
While both Democrats and Republicans have different structures and numbers of whips within their respective whip organizations, they function very much the same. Both sides contain a chief deputy whip, a number of deputy whips, and regional whips. These varying levels and positions range from keeping tabs on committees to maintaining order/creating dissent on the floor to managing the voting of certain regions important to party stability.

Leadership: Majority and Minority Whip Video

In this video, Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R - VA) and Majority Leader Seny Hoyer debate the rules of a vote on healthcare and the Reconcilliation Rule. As Minority Whip, Cantor illustrates the whip's job of gathering intelligence and information to relay to Republican leadership. Hoyer also illustrates the Majority Leader's role of laying out the Majority's plan on the floor, speaking much more than Speaker Pelosi.

Video compliments of C-SPAN Video Archive.