Czars And Firebrands: A Brief History Of Power In The House

tags: Speaker of the House, House Speaker

Ron Elving is the NPR News' Senior Washington Editor directing coverage of the nation's capital and national politics and providing on-air political analysis for many NPR programs.

... The speakership is the first leadership office specifically created in the U.S. Constitution. Its occupant stands next in the presidential line of succession after the vice president. The speaker has far more power in the House than any one senator has in the Senate. And at times in our history, the speaker's power has rivaled that of the president himself.

The first Congress met in 1789 and elected a distinguished Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania, Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, the first speaker. Muhlenberg would also serve as speaker in the third Congress, which served during George Washington's second term as president.

In 1811, the House chose as speaker a young firebrand from Kentucky who had just taken the oath as a freshman member. Henry Clay represented a wave of Westerners swept into office in 1810 by widespread fears of Indian attacks spurred by the British — a contributing factor in the War of 1812.

All told, Clay would be speaker in six different Congresses and a major focus of politics in the first half of the 19th century. But the man who took the speakership to new levels of power and influence was Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine.

Reed was the Republican speaker after the election of 1888 and twice more in the following decade. Under his suzerainty the speakership became the repository of remarkable authority over procedure, committee assignments, chairmanships and legislation. It was not long before the cartoonists of the day were portraying the Mainer with crown and scepter. He was dubbed "Czar Reed." He resigned from the House in 1899 in a dispute with President William McKinley, who had relented in his opposition to war with Spain. ...

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