A House GOP leadership primer: What do the speaker, majority leader and whip actually do?


The Capitol dome is seen on Capitol Hill at dusk in Washington, D.C., on June 9, 2014. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

House Republicans are scheduled to meet Thursday to choose a new majority leader and majority whip — a snap election called in the wake of the primary defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.).

The new leader and whip will serve alongside House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). But what does each of the leaders actually do? Here’s a quick primer:

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:

The speaker is the presiding officer and is generally considered the public face of the body. But Boehner doesn’t wield as much power over the chamber as the title suggests. The speaker’s main power derives from his or her ability to determine what bills come to the floor for debate and a vote, allowing enormous control over the nation’s legislative and political agenda.

Members of the House elect the speaker on the first day of a new two-year legislative session. He or she is usually the leader of the majority party, but is elected by the entire House, usually along party lines.

Boehner has held the position since January 2011, when Republicans took control of the House. He succeeded Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was the first woman to hold the position.

Despite being the official presiding officer of the House, the speaker rarely leads floor debate from the speaker’s rostrum and instead cedes those duties to a small group of members of his party. He or she also cedes most day-to-day operational control of the House to the majority leader.

In consultation with the majority leader, the speaker controls his party’s steering committee, which determines the size and membership of the various committees.

The speaker is second in the presidential line of succession, after the vice president, so he’s always trailed by a security detail.

Beyond official duties, the speaker is a key party leader and major fundraising draw. During the 2012 political cycle, Boehner traveled the country helping to raise more than $50 million for GOP congressional candidates.

MAJORITY LEADER:

When is the House in session? Which bills will come to the floor? These are decisions for the majority leader. This role has evolved into a kind of chief executive of the House.

Cantor has held the position since January 2011. He is the youngest leader in congressional history and the first Jewish lawmaker to hold the position.

As second in command, the leader is responsible for key operational details of the House and also plays a key role in executing his party’s legislative agenda. It’s the leader who sets the House schedule, so credit or blame for long recesses — which Cantor has formally dubbed “district work periods” — goes to him.

The leader is elected by members of his party in a secret, closed-door meeting.

HOUSE MAJORITY WHIP:

Is a bill going to pass? Who’s going to vote for it? It’s the whip’s job to know. The whip keeps the count. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has held the job since January 2011. He succeeded Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who now serves as an assistant minority leader.

If the speaker sets the legislative agenda and the majority leader lays out the game plan, it’s the whip who ensures that legislation will pass. House Republican tradition dictates that no legislation is supposed to be brought to a vote unless a majority of the GOP conference plans to support it — but the edict has been violated in recent years. In some cases, the majority leader and whip have abruptly pulled legislation from the floor for lack of Republican support.

So how does the whip count votes? It’s a complex process, done on a member-to-member basis, with no aides, e-mail or text messaging permitted.

McCarthy oversees a team of dozens of deputy whips — the exact number is a closely guarded secret, but his lead deputy is Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). Other junior deputies are chosen to meet a variety of factors, including geography, political ideology and the year they were elected.

The whip isn’t in the presidential line of succession, but as a senior House leader is given security protection. He or she is elected by members of his party in the same secret, closed-door meeting where a leader is chosen. The new whip later selects his or her deputies.

According to the Senate historian, the term “whip” derives from the fox-hunting expression “whipper-in,” which refers to the member of the hunting team responsible for keeping the dogs from straying during a chase.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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