Civics 101: How is the U.S. House speaker selected?

J. H. Osborne • Nov 12, 2018 at 2:49 PM

This week’s Civics 101: speaker of the House.


Leadership of the United States House of Representatives includes: the speaker; majority and minority leaders; assistant leaders; whips; and a party caucus or conference.

The speaker acts as leader of the House and combines several institutional and administrative roles. Majority and minority leaders represent their respective parties on the House floor. Whips assist leadership in managing their party’s legislative program on the House floor. The majority party members and the minority party members meet in separate caucuses to select their leader.

Election of the speaker

The speaker of the House is elected at the beginning of a new Congress by a majority of the representatives-elect from candidates separately chosen by the majority and minority party as each holds an organizing caucus soon after the new Congress is elected. The speaker of the House is by law second in line to succeed the president, after the vice president.

Interesting facts

• First Speaker of the House: Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was elected presiding officer on April 1, 1789, the day the House organized itself during the First Federal Congress (1789–1791).

• Total number of speakers: To date, 54 individuals have served as speaker of the House.

• Longest-serving speaker of the House: Samuel Rayburn of Texas served for a total of 17 years, two months, and two days.

• Shortest term of speaker: Elected to the position as a sign of respect from his colleagues on March 3, 1869, Theodore M. Pomeroy of New York served for the closing day of the 40th Congress (1867–1869).

• State with the most speakers: Eight Massachusetts representatives have served as speaker.

• First (and only) speaker to serve as president: James K. Polk of Tennessee.

• Longest election for speaker: After more than two months and 133 ballots, Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts was elected speaker on February 2, 1856.

• First speaker to make a televised address in the House chamber: On the opening day of the 80th Congress (1947–1949), Speaker Joseph Martin of Massachusetts addressed the House during the first live television broadcast in the House chamber.

• First woman speaker: On January 4, 2007, Nancy Pelosi of California became the first woman to serve in the role.

• Youngest speaker elected: Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia was elected on Dec. 16, 1839, at the age of 30.

• Oldest speaker elected: Henry T. Rainey of Illinois was elected for the first time on March 9, 1933, at the age of 72. The oldest member to hold the office was Sam Rayburn of Texas, who was elected for the 10th and final time at age 78 in 1961. Rayburn passed away later that Congress, two months short of his 80th birthday.

• Most party affiliations for a speaker: During his entire House career, Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts had four different party affiliations (Democrat, American Party, Republican and Independent).

• First sitting speaker to lose re-election to his House seat: William Pennington of New Jersey. Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania and Tom Foley of Washington also lost re-election to their House seats.

• Number of speakers to die in office: Five (Michael C. Kerr of Indiana, Henry T. Rainey of Illinois, Joseph W. Byrns of Tennessee, William B. Bankhead of Alabama, Samuel Rayburn of Texas).

Source: United States House of Representatives (https://history.house.gov/People/).

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