The elections are over, right?

For the average American, yes. But for Members of Congress, there is a whole other round of elections coming up. Prior to the convening of a new Congress, the Democratic and Republican parties in each Chamber meet to elect a slate of leaders who will serve them for the upcoming two years.

What are party leaders?

Congressional leaders are responsible for developing the party’s agenda, promoting party unity, communicating with national press, liaising with the Executive Branch, and defending and increasing the number of seats the party holds. Party leadership hierarchies have developed over the years, originating first as informal positions which were then formalized and expanded upon.

In the House, the major elective leadership positions are:

  • Speaker
  • Majority and Minority Leader
  • Majority and Minority Whip
  • Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus Chairs and Vice Chairs
  • National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairs

(As an aside, most of the time, you won’t see the Minority Leader referred to as the “Minority Leader.” Instead of the word “Minority,” you’ll see their party affiliation added in its place. So for example, during this Congress the Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, was referred to as the “Republican Leader.”  This was started the 1950s by Democrat Sam Rayburn and Republican Joe Martin.  These two were good friends who switched between being Speaker and Minority Leader a couple times. As courtesy for his friend, Speaker Martin spared Rayburn the indignity of being called “Minority Leader,” and called him “Democratic Leader” instead; and Rayburn returned his friend’s favor when their roles switched. But for our purposes here, that would only lead to confusion, so we’ll stick with the older traditional titles.)

Both parties have more minor leadership positions that are elective. Additionally, a number of leadership positions are appointed. The Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus rules each list which positions are elective.

The Speaker is both the presiding officer of the House and a party leader. As presiding officer, she governs debates, oversees the administration of the House, and fulfills many ceremonial functions both at home and abroad. As the top party leader, she takes primary responsibility for developing the party’s policy positions; moving legislation through the House; negotiating with the Senate and White House; and serving as the party’s chief spokesman when the opposite party controls the White House. The Majority Leader has a share in the Speaker’s partisan responsibilities but is especially responsible for managing when legislation comes to the Floor. Since he is responsible for the House’s calendar, among all of his party’s leaders, he collaborates most closely with his minority counterpart, the Minority Leader. The Minority Leader serves roughly the same partisan roles as the Speaker, but without the institutional roles attached to the office. The Whips in each party responsible for securing a majority for the party’s position on a piece of legislation, for knowing which way each Member will vote on a bill, and for communicating the party’s position to the rank-and-file. The Caucus and Conference are the organizing bodies for the Democrats and Republicans and are the forums in which the parties as a whole discuss issues related to policy, communications, and the overall direction of the party. The Caucus and Conference Chairs preside over their parties gatherings. Particularly effective chairs provide the rank-and-file with the various resources they need to succeed as Members of Congress. (For instance, a good chair might help rank-and-file Members increase their profile by connecting them with national media.) The National Republican Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and their chairmen each have two simple goals: Keep control of the seats they already have and win seats they don’t yet have.

Likewise, the Senate Republican Conference rules stipulate that the following positions are elective:

  • Floor Leader
  • Assistant Floor Leader (also called the Whip)
  • Republican Conference Chairman and Vice Chairman
  • Policy Committee Chairman
  • National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman

The Senate Democrats do not publish their rules. According to one Congressional Research Service report, the Floor Leader (who is ex officio chair of the Caucus) and Assistant Floor Leader (traditionally, also called the Whip) are elective. Although the Assistant Floor Leader is traditionally called the Whip, the Democrats divided the titles at the beginning of the 116th Congress. Though the positions were divided, both remained elective. Other leadership positions include the chairmanships of the Policy and Communications Committee, the Steering Committee, the Campaign Committee, Caucus Secretary, and vice chairmanships for various committees.

The Senate leadership positions are similar to those of the House. The biggest difference is that the while the Speaker holds the most power in the House, the Majority Leader does in the Senate. In the Senate, the Majority Leader is recognized first when he seeks recognition, so he uses that privilege to control the flow of debate on the Floor.

How are party leaders elected?

Both parties in both Chambers hold meetings after the congressional elections but before the new Congress begins at the beginning of January. During these meetings, Members vote on their leaders. The House Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus both provide for a secret ballot, though the Democrats allow for a motion to waive the secret ballot. The Senate Republican Conference rules provide for a secret ballot as well. (The Senate Democrats do not release their rules.)

Unlike the other House leadership positions, the Speakership is subject to a vote on the House Floor. To be elected, a candidate needs a simple majority of all votes cast, and the party leaders expect their rank-and-file to support them in the vote, regardless of who they voted for in the caucus. If the rank-and-file follow the leader’s expectations, the majority candidate wins without a problem. And usually there isn’t. It’s been nearly 100 years since it took the House multiple ballots to elect a Speaker, and the last time it occurred, in 1923, has been the only time since the Civil War.

Though it’s exceedingly rare for a Speaker not to be elected on the first ballot, Members occasionally do not support their party’s nominee for Speaker. They typically do this to express discontent with the party’s nominee. For instance, in the 2018 midterm elections, a number of Democrats made a campaign pledge that they would not vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. In the Speakership election 12 Democrats voted for other candidates and 3 answered “present.” Five Republicans voted for someone other than Leader Kevin McCarthy. (One Republican didn’t vote, but he was absent due to a grave illness.) Supporting another candidate is generally considered an affront to leadership, though it’s forgivable. Supporting the other party’s nominee is not. The last person to do so was the eminently colorful Democratic Representative Jim Traficant of Ohio. He supported Speaker Denny Hastert, and in retaliation, his party denied him any committee slots, which was the first time that happened in about a century.

Since no House rule requires a Member to vote for their party’s nominee for Speaker, when discontent in the majority party is unusually high, folks in the orbit of Capitol Hill speculate on whether the nominee will have enough votes to lock it down on the Floor. When the difference between the parties is slim, increase the chance that the candidate won’t secure a majority. There are 435 U.S. Representatives. If each of these vote in the Speakership election, it takes 218 to win, since this is a majority of all votes cast. If only 1 person abstains, the total required is still 218, since that is still a majority. However, if 2 Members abstain, it takes 217 votes. If discontented majority Members don’t vote in the Speakership race, they don’t contribute to their party nominee’s vote tally, but they do decrease the number of votes needed to become Speaker. If they vote for another candidate, they much more directly harm the nominee’s chances of being elected since they both increase the number of votes needed to win and they don’t contribute to achieving that threshold. Let’s say there is a 218-217 split between the parties in the House. All Members vote, but one disaffected majority Member votes for a third candidate; then the tally would be 217-217-1—no Speaker would be elected. Or they abstain; the tally is 217-217—again, no Speaker. But as the size of the majority increases, the party’s nominee has greater leeway to lose votes.

The failure of a majority party’s nominee to secure the Speakership on the first ballot, though with precedent, would still be a spectacle. During the last Congress, Speaker Pelosi failed to secure the votes of 15 Democrats. All eyes will be on the House to see whether she’ll be able to pull off another election on the Floor. On the one hand, she lost the votes of 15 Democrats in the last Speakership election, and Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has been happy to point out, the Democrats have lost seats and the GOP will have substantially more power in the House. On the other hand, Pelosi is acknowledged as a particularly skilled vote counter and Caucus manager. Also, even Democratic discontents know that blocking a Pelosi Speakership on the Floor itself would embarrass the party and nearly paralyze it for the rest of Congress. In all probability, Pelosi will win in January.

(For more on the election of a Speaker, see our post “How the House Elects Its Speaker.”)

Properly speaking, the Senate President pro tempore position is also elected by a vote on the Floor. However, since it is primarily a ceremonial position the Floor election is more a formality than the Speakership election. For instance, at the beginning of the 116th Congress, the Senate elected Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa to the office by unanimous consent, without any opposition or candidate from the Democrats. (To our knowledge, the last time there was no opposition in a Speakership election was when Speaker William Bankhead, a Democrat, died mid-session and the Majority Leader, Sam Rayburn of Texas, succeeded him.) If the Republicans retain control of the Senate, Senator Chuck Grassley will remain President pro tempore. If the Democrats take control following the runoff elections in Georgia, Senator Patrick Leahy, who served as President pro tempore from December 2012 through January 2015, will retake the office.

How do congressional elections affect leadership elections?

Electoral fortunes are an important factor in determining the future party leaders. A good year in the national elections can mean a good year for the incumbent leaders. If a party maintains or increases their seats, leaders can usually expect to maintain their positions. If a party goes from the minority to the majority in the House, the minority leader can usually expect to become Speaker, and the minority whip becomes the majority leader. When there’s a change in control in the Senate, the minority leader typically becomes the majority leader.

A disastrous year might mean the party looks for new leadership. After Republican losses in 1998, House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston of Louisiana mounted a challenge to Speaker Newt Gingrich, who then announced he would not serve in the 106th Congress. With the House Democrats’ unexpected losses last week, there’s been some speculation about changing leadership at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). With a much smaller majority, Nancy Pelosi will have a harder time becoming Speaker again next year, and some Democrats are reportedly trying to force her out.

Losing seats, however, does not necessarily mean that a party will force its leaders out. Though Pelosi’s Speakership might be threatened this time around, she illustrates this point as well. The Democrats lost the majority under her watch in 2010, but they still kept her on as their minority leader. Losing seats does not necessarily doom a leader since Members of Congress understand that sometimes elections just don’t go their way. This is particularly true during the midterm elections when your party controls the White House. Historically, the President’s party loses seats halfway through his term. Since this is to be expected the rank-and-file are more forgiving of their leaders. But in any election, if losses are substantially higher than expected, leaders are more liable to be challenged.

How else are the Speaker and President pro tempore important for the country?

The Speaker and President pro tempore are also important since they are the second and third in line for the Presidency, respectively. This is per statutory law, not the Constitution. Article II, section 1 of the Constitution allows Congress to legislate on who should succeed to the Presidency if there is no President or Vice President. No Speaker or President pro tempore has ever succeeded to the Presidency this way.

By tradition, the most senior majority party Senator is elected President pro tempore. It is a largely honorary position, so the person who holds it might act as an influential elder statesman, and their leadership responsibilities attached to that office are limited. But since seniority is an important feature of the Senate power structure, it’s quite likely that a given President pro tempore is a committee chairman. The current President pro tempore, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairs the Finance Committee and previously chaired the Judiciary Committee. His predecessor, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, chaired the Finance Committee as well. And his predecessor, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chaired the Judiciary Committee. His predecessor, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, chaired the Appropriations Committee. By now, you might have noticed that these Presidents pro tempore not only simultaneously served as chairmen, but as chairmen of major committees—another testament to the role of seniority in the Senate.

Some people say my Member of Congress is a rising star. Does that mean they will be Speaker someday?

Media outlets that cater to Capitol Hill often carry stories speculating about which junior party members will be future leaders in their party. A younger legislator should not let such attention go to their heads. Often enough, such politicians fizzle out after a misstep. Other times they simply move on to other elective offices. For instance, one Politico article from last year noted that Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico “is seen as a future contender for one of the caucus’ top jobs—maybe even Speaker.” He has just been elected a U.S. Senator. He’ll be joining Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of New Mexico, whom people also pegged for a future Speaker.  Fortunately for him, he still has a job in Congress, unlike former Representative Joe Crowley of New York who was labeled the “heir apparent” to Nancy Pelosi, until he was defeated in the Democratic primary by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in 2018.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is the Institute’s research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.