[Last update 2001jun07]

A Brief History of Congressional Leadership


THEORY: Constitutional Provisions
PRACTICE: the House of Representatives
PRACTICE: the United States Senate

This page is a reference for:
Political Party Floor Leadership in the United States
Sessions of Congress of the United States


 

THEORY: Constitutional Provisions

The Framers of the Constitution were apparently relatively unconcerned with who would lead the houses of Congress on the floor (that is, who would manage legislation through each chamber on a day-in/day-out basis). The Constitution only contains two references to officers of each house of Congress, thus:

The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers...

[Article I, Section 2, clause 5a]

The Senate shall choose their other Officers [other than the Vice President, the constitutional President of the Senate], and also a President pro Tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States. [Article I, Section 3, clause 5]

The section first quoted (that relating to officers of the House of Representatives) was reported out of the Committee on Detail of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on 6 August 1787 and adopted by the Convention without comment or dissent on 9 August; this has led to much speculation about just what kind of Speaker of the House the Framers intended: a non-partisan Speaker on the British model? or a Speaker who- like the same officer in the colonial assemblies and nascent State Legislatures- openly wielded his gavel to the advantage of the faction[s] which controlled the chamber and to the detriment of his/their political enemies?? Some constitutional historians have suggested that- as the Framers were familiar with the latter type and, further, viewed the popularly elected House as the repository of the "excited political passions of the People"- they intended an overtly partisan Speakership; but other scholars- noting the attempts to thwart faction in the Federal system the Framers were creating (seen most clearly in the creation of the Electoral College system to elect the President)- have argued that the Speaker was intended to be non-partisan and to stay, more or less, "above the fray". It is also quite possible that the Convention instinctively knew that a given Speaker would be whatever the House of the particular Congress he would be serving would want him to be (partisan or no) and left it at that.

The section dealing with the officers of the Senate was, at least to some extent, a somewhat different matter: the same Committee on Detail that produced the section relating to officers of the House also reported out a provision that the Senate, likewise, choose its presiding and other officers and- just as with the similar House provision in Art.I, Sec.2, cl.5- this, too, was adopted without comment or dissent by the Convention on 9 August 1787. But then the Convention itself threw the proverbial "spanner in the works" with its debate over, and eventual adoption of, the Electoral College system of electing the President (recounted elsewhere on this website): two men would be voted for President by each Presidential Elector and, ultimately, two men would be elected- a President and a Vice President; the Vice President had to be given something to do and he was, therefore, made constitutional "president of the Senate" by a vote of the Convention on 7 September 1787. Now that the power of the proposed Senate to choose its own presiding officer had been taken from it, the section about Senate officers had to be reworked by the Committee on Style which was, by then, working the document into a final draft (the Convention would adjourn sine die on 17 September!) and what emerged was the present Art. I, Sec. 3, cl. 5, in which the Senate was specifically authorized to choose- along with its other (unstated) officers- a "President pro Tempore" who would preside (or, in eventual practice, authorize which Senator of the Majority party would preside) when the Vice President was otherwise busy.

There has been some speculation among historians (though not nearly as much as has been devoted to the Framers' intent re: the role of the Speaker of the House) over the role intended for this President pro Tempore: was he intended to be to the Senate what the Speaker was to be to the House (whatever that was- see above)? for example, when the Administration didn't need to have the Vice President present in the Presiding Officer's chair for its own political purposes, would the President pro Tempore- being one of the Senate's own- been seen as one to guide legislation through the Senate on behalf of that faction/Party which controlled it?? It is, of course, much more probable that the Committee on Style merely recognized that- during absence of the Vice President or a vacancy in that office- someone should be designated, ahead of time, to preside (to avoid nasty fights on the Senate floor over who should wield the gavel) and then just left it at that.

PRACTICE: the House of Representatives

The earliest Speakers of the House were, in the main, non-partisan- regardless of the intention of the Framers of the then-still new Constitution: in part, this was due to the primitive state of national Parties in this early period (essentially whatever "factions" existed in the House during the early Congresses coalesced into more or less loose coalitions of "Administration" [pro-policies of the Washington Administration] and "Opposition" [against those same policies] members) but it was also in part because those in the House seem to have purposely opted- at least at first- to not have the type of "factional" Speaker found in the lower houses of the legislatures of their home States. Most of those serving in the new Federal Government- in whatever capacity- honestly felt that they were embarking on something new, something that could yet prove itself to be above the petty politics of State and local governance: the Speakers chosen during the first three Congresses, as well the manner in which they exercised their authority as the House's presiding officer, seem to show this.

There was no "leadership" as such in the earliest Congresses: each bill introduced in the House had its "floor manager" (pretty much the Congressman who introduced the particular piece of legislation-- for example, James Madison of Virginia was the person who drafted and then introduced the first Amendments to the Constitution that eventually became what we Americans call "the Bill of Rights" on the floor of the House of the 1st Congress; of course, those who supported his efforts clearly approved of his actually doing this [while Madison's famous notes to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 would not be published for nearly fifty years, it must have been known- at least to some- that he had taken these notes and he must have been seen as someone who could well reconcile the Amendments being proposed- themselves based on Amendments suggested in appendices to the Instruments of Ratification of the Constitution added by the Ratifying Conventions of several States- to the work of those who had attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia]) but there was, as yet, no "legislative program" put forth by a stable working Majority or anything that we, today, could call a "Party agenda". The leadership of the political factions in the House favoring the goals of the Washington Administration wasn't even a member that body (nor even in the Senate): it was pretty much Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton [!], acting on his own theory that this officer was the closest thing Washington could have to a "prime minister" (while Washington was clearly not above having Hamilton push the financial proposals of the Administration- most notably, the creation of a Bank of the United States, the General turned President was not about to let it be said that he was not at the helm of his own Administration: Hamilton's idea of a Cabinet officer as an American "Head of Government" was, in the main, strongly rebuffed and, ever since Washington's tenure, Presidents of the United States have been their own "prime minister"!)

Partisanship, nevertheless, came to the Speaker's chair in the wake of the development of the Federalist and "old" Republican Parties as the 1796 Presidential Election loomed: when pro-Administration Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, hitherto more or less non-partisanly presiding over the House of the 4th Congress- a House controlled by the Opposition, cast two crucial votes which carried the day for the Washington Administration trying to get funding in order to begin to implement Jay's Treaty, any notion that the Speaker of the House would always remain above politics ended once and for all. Still, although Speakers would- from now on, except under extraordinary circumstances- represent the Majority Party in the House, it would not be until Henry Clay of Kentucky was Speaker during the early 19th Century that a person holding that office would first begin to aggressively push his Party's legislative program through the House; in this sense, the Speakers, beginning with Clay, became- in effect- the earliest form of "House Majority Leader". Throughout the middle years of the 19th Century, this was to be an important part of the Speaker's role, though how effective it was depended largely on how big was the margin re: seats in the House for the Majority, as well as how dynamic was the personality of the Speaker in the first place: the ability of subsequent Speakers to emulate Clay tended to blow "hot and cold" from Congress to Congress.

The late 19th Century would see the development of modern-style House leadership: by the post-Reconstruction era, one can begin to see a nascent "Minority Leader" emerging in the House- one almost always identified with the Minority's losing candidate for Speaker (at times, a former- and/or future- Speaker himself, had his Party been- or would his Party yet be- the Majority), which only made sense given that the Speaker of the House was still, at least in theory (where the political landscape of the House membership did not permit this in practice), de facto "Majority Leader". The succession of Speakerships from those of Democrats John Carlisle and Charles Crisp through that of Republicans Thomas (known as "Czar") Reed and "Uncle Joe" Cannon- from 1883 through 1911 (a sequence interrupted only by the somewhat less-imposing Speakership of Republican David Henderson [1899-1903])- was the "furnace" in which modern Congressional Leadership (in both houses, since what was done in the House would eventually influence the Senate) was to be forged.

Carlisle and Crisp, Reed and Cannon- while from different Parties (as well as differing factions within those Parties)- shared a common idea that the Speaker could be of his Party, yes, yet still- when necessary- remain above it: but also that the Speaker should seek to impose his own political vision upon the whole House, not merely be the leader of his Party in that body, and that- if the Speaker had to, at times, ride roughshod over Congressmen of his own Party to do so- then so be it! The result was to make the Speaker of the House something more than a mere functionary of the legislative process, turning him into a national leader nearly as visible as the President of the United States itself (a position a dynamic Speaker of recent times- a "Tip" O'Neill or a Newt Gingrich- might still command, particularly when the President was of the Party other than the Majority in the House [as was the case with both men aforementioned]); of course, it helped this cause that the Speaker was not, in any direct way, tied to the Administration (as was the constitutional president of the Senate, the Vice President) and, back in this period, also presided over the only house of Congress directly elected by the People (Senators were still chosen by State Legislatures in the late 19th going into the early 20th Century).

With the Speaker- in the 1880's- now putting himself forth as something other than a mere Party leader in the House, there was a need for an actual Party floor leader- a true Majority Leader as an officer separate from the Speaker. At first, this function was primarily exercised by the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (since this was the committee which handled the bulk of the so-called "Bills of Revenue" and, per Art. I, Sec. 7, cl. 1, this was solely the bailiwick of the House, this was a very powerful position) but, in 1899, Speaker Henderson specifically designated a House Majority Leader (Sereno Payne) to act as his "agent" on the House floor (allowing Henderson to publicly distance himself from the Party leadership- when he felt it expedient to do so); the office of Majority Leader, separate from that of the Speaker, has existed ever since.

The Minority Leader, meanwhile, continued (as he almost always yet continues) to be the losing candidate for the Speakership put forward by the Minority Party but, at the same time as the Majority Leader first emerged as a formal officer of the House, so did the Minority Leader- this potential "Speaker-in-waiting", to this day, a recognized officer of the House. Also in 1899, the Majority first chose a "Whip" (a term already, by then, of long use in the British Parliament, itself deriving from the term used to describe the man whose job it was, during a foxhunt, to keep the hounds from straying); the Minority followed suit toward the end of that same Congress (the 56th). The job of these Whips- besides acting as floor leader in the absence of their respective Party's leader- has traditionally been to keep his or her Party's leader apprised of who is- and who is not- toeing the Party line as a floor vote looms; Majority Whips tend to be of the same faction within the Party as the Majority Leader and Speaker (since it is the Majority that has the power to push through their legislative agenda: thus, everybody must be on- more or less- the same "page"), while Minority Whips are often of a different faction of the Party than the Minority Leader (which might explain why, although moving from Minority Leader to Speaker if and when the Minority becomes the Majority seems at least somewhat de riguer, moving from Minority Whip to Majority Leader is not nearly so automatic [many Minority Whips have remained Whips when their Party has become the Majority]).

During the 61st Congress, there was a revolt on the part of many rank-and-file House Republicans against "Uncle Joe" Cannon, the last of the so-called "czar" Speakers: in the ensuing 1910 Midterm Elections, the Democrats took control of the House and Champ Clark (who was actually much more interested in pursuing the 1912 Democratic Presidential Nomination [in what proved to be a losing cause]), who had been Minority Leader, became Speaker. But the real power in the House was now exercised by the new Majority Leader, Oscar W. Underwood, who also chaired the Ways and Means Committee (thus merging that powerful House committee with the leadership post) and, by extension, the Democrats' Committee on Committees (which was made up of that Party's Ways and Means membership). Clark- though now Speaker- had not chosen Underwood in the manner Henderson and Cannon had chosen the Republican Payne: rather, Underwood was chosen Majority Leader by the Party Caucus and Underwood himself used that fact of rank-and-file support to assert his authority over Clark as the Democrats' true leader in the House; Underwood's successor, Claude Kitchin, would continue do the same thing during the remainder of Clark's Speakership.

Meanwhile, the House Republicans who had first turned on ex-Speaker Cannon now finished the job, putting forth James Mann as their losing candidate for Speaker in the new 62nd Congress and, thus, making him Minority Leader. From now on, Democratic Leaders and Whips would be chosen by that Party's Caucus, while Republican Leaders and Whips would be chosen, first, by the Republicans' Committee on Committees (their members of Ways and Means) and then, after 1923, by their own Party's Conference (as the GOP titled its House party "caucus"). The Majority Leader would, from now on, be viewed as the principal "front-runner" for the Speakership should a vacancy in that office, so long as his Party remained the Majority, need to be filled; meanwhile, the Minority Leader would continue to be viewed as his Party's "Speaker-in-waiting". All top House officers- of both the Majority (including the Speaker) and Minority- are, to this day, so chosen by the rank-and-file House membership of each Party.

Frederick Gillett, who became Speaker with the Republicans having regained control of the House as a result of the 1918 Midterm Elections, tried to revert somewhat to the more "above the fray" or "judicial" Speaker much more common prior to the late 19th Century but he would turn out to be the last to do so. His successor, Nicholas Longworth, re-established the Speaker as his Party's true leader in the House- all while still keeping the office in that position of visible national leadership it had held (except, perhaps, during the Clark/Gillett era) since the beginning of the era of the "czar" Speakers; though the efficacy of the Speakership as a post of national leadership has since varied from Congress to Congress- depending largely on the dynamism of the political persona of a given Speaker (contrast, for example, the dynamic Sam Rayburn with his successors, John McCormack and Carl Albert), as well as (so noted earlier) whether or not the Majority Party in the House is also the Party holding the White House- this national leadership role of the Speaker of the House remains to this day.

PRACTICE: the United States Senate

The Senate's experience with the evolution of its leadership was somewhat different from that of the House. In the early days, Senators- chosen by State Legislatures- were viewed (and, indeed, viewed themselves) as "Ambassadors" to the Federal System from a second level of Sovereignty within that very system; in addition, unlike the House, where Party discipline was more easily enforced through sheer numbers (the House was always larger in size than the Senate) as well as rules which limited speeches and debate, the Senate's laxer rules regarding length of speeches and its very deliberative nature (as a quintessential "second chamber" of a bicameral legislature) tended to promote individuality and made the upper house that much less amenable to the whip of Party discipline (to a certain extent, this is still true of the Senate today- even though the People of the States, and not their legislators, have long elected its members, thereby reducing the "ambassadorial" role).

In addition, there were no top echelon officers of the Senate who could emulate the role of Speaker as Party leader in the House first seen during the Speakerships of Henry Clay. Particularly after the adoption of the 12th Amendment mandating that Presidential Electors vote separately for President and Vice President in 1804, the Vice President- though constitutional president of the Senate- was politically tied to the governing Presidential Administration; there was, thus, no way for the Vice President to assert a leadership role from the presiding officer's chair, nor would the Senate- jealously guarding its prerogatives under the Separation of Powers doctrine (which it had already used to shoot down attempts by Presidents Washington and Adams to use it as a kind of "advisory council" a-la the Governor's Councils of Royal Provinces in colonial days)- have allowed this to happen even had the 12th Amendment never been ratified.

The President pro Tempore- being one of the Senate's own- might have yet emerged as the Senate's version of the Speaker of the House (thus becoming a kind of early "Senate Majority Leader") but for the fact that the Senate took the provisions of Art. I, Sec. 3, cl. 5 quite literally: for the first century under the new Constitution, the Senators would only choose a President pro Tempore when the Vice President was, indeed, literally absent; once the Vice President returned to the chamber to take up the gavel, the official service of the President pro Tempore was considered to have ended. It is true that, as the 19th Century wore on, the same person tended to be elected President pro Tempore in the course of a given session of Congress whenever one was needed (one could argue that the evolution of the office towards permanent status had already begun); also, the office was made part of the succession to the Presidency during a vacancy in the Vice Presidency- the theory being that, in such a case, the President pro Tempore was "acting President of the Senate" (the origin of the somewhat famous myths and legends surrounding Senate President pro Tempore David Rice Atchison allegedly napping through his "term" as "acting President of the United States" because 4 March 1849 happened to fall on a Sunday [stories later promoted by Senator Atchison himself], the legal and constitutional hurdles to this story having any semblance of validity notwithstanding) and, for a time in the mid-19th Century, the President pro Tempore was even given power to name members of Senate standing committees. But the very Latin name of his office- Senate President "for the time being"- probably did not lend the office much hope of ever having a leadership role.

By 1890, Vice Presidents were no longer regularly attending sessions of the Senate to preside (though some would- well into the 20th Century- continue to do so), the beginning of the practice of the Vice President showing up only when a close vote might need a tie-breaker in the Senate to bail the Administration out; in that year, the President pro Tempore was made a permanent position by statute (the Senate had long ceased electing a new President pro Tempore whenever one was needed anyway: since the Senate- unlike the House- is a continuing body, two-thirds of its membership returning to a new Congress without having to have been re-elected, a Senator elected President pro Tempore would be seen as the automatic person to fill that office until either he ceased to serve in the Senate or a successor was elected in his place). Since 1945, the President pro Tempore has automatically been the senior-most Senator of the Majority Party and his "election" by the Senate is more or less perfunctory; as a result, the office has become more or less ceremonial (the President pro Tempore simply designating, at the start of each day, who shall preside in his stead [assuming the Vice President isn't around to act as president of the Senate, of course]).

With neither the Vice President of the United States nor the Senate President pro Tempore able to assert leadership over the Senate, the Senate was either rudderless or subject to the control of a "cabal" surrounding a powerful Senator or two of the Majority Party. The last such "cabal" was that of Senators William Allison and Nelson Aldrich in the very late 19th into the early 20th Century; when Allison died in 1908- followed by Aldrich's leaving the Senate in 1911- that "cabal" lost its influence. Just after Aldrich's retirement, both Parties formally named Party floor Leaders for the first time; two years later, when their Party gained control of the Senate, the Majority Democrats also named the first Senate Whip. Two years after that, the Minority Republicans named their first Whip and the Senate leadership organization was, by 1915, as complete as that of the House.

In fact, the Senate leadership system essentially copied that of the House and many of the same observations- noted above- regarding the roles of Leaders and Whips, whether Majority or Minority, in the House apply pretty much to these same officers in the Senate. The chief difference is that the floor Leaders in the Senate- unlike those in the House- are not "presiding officers-in-waiting" (although a fair number of Senate Majority Leaders and Whips have become their Party's nominee for Vice President: including Charles Curtis, Charles McNary, Alben Barkley, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey; Senate leadership has not, by the way, proven to be a very good launching pad from which to be President- Bob Dole, in 1996, was the only person nominated for President after having run for that nomination while still the Leader of his Party in the Senate; this does not augur well for Tom Daschle, who has been mentioned as a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2004!)

 

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