The President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House: What They Do and Why They Matter

by Isaac Butman

In terms of the power wielded in state legislative politics, no one is perceived to have more power than the leaders of the legislative bodies: the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. These two figures are usually held up as the figureheads of each chamber who at times can chart and represent the course that any particular legislative session will take. The media recognizes this by firmly planting blame or acclaim on their shoulders, much as they do to Governors, the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate at the federal level, and the President of the United States. Citizens recognize this by routinely holding the Speaker and President accountable for the outcomes and outputs of the legislature. People expect that the Speaker and President will lead their respective chambers, and will communicate with the people about important happenings within the legislature. This notoriety is well deserved. In Oregon no one in the legislature has as much direct influence and power as these two individuals. As indicated by interviews conducted with former Speaker of the House Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone, District 40) much of what happens during a legislative session depends on the Speaker, and the choices the Speaker makes during the session.1

Day to day the Speaker and President preside (in person or in general) over all the chamber business that happens: committee meetings, floor sessions, overseeing the flow of bills within their chamber, creating the daily agenda and schedule, managing member complaints and issues, all while attending their own committees, communicating with their constituents, and working their own bills through the legislature. They hold the positions of ringmaster, taskmaster, rule-maker and enforcer, coordinator, figurehead, and legislator all at once.

Due to this extremely large burden, Speakers and Presidents receive a larger budget, a larger staff, and a larger office than other legislators to help them fulfill their duties.

Of great importance within the four documents listed at the beginning of this section is the list of the committees that will be convened during each session. In Oregon, the President and Speaker have complete authority over which committees will exist and who will sit on them. These are powers with great implications.

Committees, Committee Chairs, Committee Assignments

The power to determine which committees exist is not a particularly powerful one, but it is important none the less. The purview of each committee is determined by the Speaker or President, which has an effect on which bills are heard in which committee. A bill must be germane to the title of the committee it is assigned to. Depending on how much control a Speaker or President chooses to exert over committees certain types of bills have a better or worse chance at passage.6 After the Speaker and President establish the committees for a session, they appoint the committee Chairs and committee members. These two actions by the Speaker or President can be two of the most important actions that they take in the whole of a legislative session.

Who Chairs each committee and who sits on each committee determines which bills have a chance at passage during a legislative session. Committees are the first place that bills have to pass scrutiny, with most bills dying in committee. Committees do not have to hear or pass all the bills that are assigned to them, and Chairs are the people that assign the agenda of their respective committees. If a Chair does not like a bill, they will not even give the bill a hearing. This means that committee Chairs, even more than individual members of the legislature, control what legislation gets enacted during any individual session. It can be argued that the power of committee Chairs approaches that of the Speaker or the President. The Speaker and the President must assign each bill to a committee, and must bring each bill that is voted out of committee to the floor for a vote. However, Chairs do not have to have hearings on every bill, and they do not have to have vote on every bill. The role of Chairs as gatekeepers is many times greater than that of the Speaker or President.

There are checks on Chairs however. The Speaker and President can change committee Chairs and committee members assignments in the middle of a session, and Chairs usually work with the Speaker and/or President to move legislation through a committee. A large part of what is collaborated on is the party platform, which is a big piece of what determines session priorities. This trickles down to committee Chairs and determines when, or if, they hear certain bills. Another big role that Speakers and Presidents play, in terms of which bills get heard, is in deciding what gets negotiated between the two major parties. If a bill could make it out of committee, but will not get the votes on the floor, Speakers and Presidents typically ensure that the bill doesn’t make it out of committee.

After the appointment of Chairs, Committee assignments are some of the most important actions Speakers and Presidents take during a legislative session. Each piece of legislation that is introduced must be cleared out of a committee before it can be considered on the floor of either chamber. If a bill cannot attract enough votes to make it out of a committee and back to the floor the bill dies.

 Bills

For a short period of time at the beginning of every legislative session, each legislator may submit an unlimited number of bills for consideration. The first place in the process the bill goes is to the floor for a first reading. The bill’s relating-to clause (a short overview of what the bill relates to) is read to the members, then the bill is sent to the Speaker or President for committee assignment.

In some states and at the federal level neither the Speaker nor the President have to assign bills to committee. This allows the Speaker or President to kill bills on their own. In Oregon this is not the case. According to the Senate and House Rules, each bill must be assigned to a committee by the Speaker or President. This is another major power that the Speaker and President wield. However, if the Speaker or President wishes a bill to die they can send it to a committee that will likely kill the bill.7 Depending on which members are on a committee, what their priorities are, and the connections the Speaker or President has with the chair of the committee, the bill can either make it back to the floor, or not.

If a bill makes it out of committee, which less than 25% of bills do, it goes to the floor for a second reading, and then a third reading.8 The second reading is just like the first, the relating-to clause is read and the bill is moved to the Speaker’s desk. The third reading is where the members of the chamber vote on the bill. Technically there is debate on the floor as well as a vote, but the reality is that much, if not most, of the negotiation happens before this point. This negotiation takes place between the member who submitted the bill, the committee, lobbyists, other interested parties, party leadership (the Majority Leader and Minority Leader) and the Speaker or President.9

Typically bills are not sent to the floor unless they have a good chance of passing, which is why the Speaker and President play a role in negotiation; they are a gatekeeper of sorts for bills during this stage. Again, the Speaker and President have the ability to affect legislation. If they respond favorably and support a bill its chance of success increases, if they do not, it is much less likely to survive. They can also impede a bill’s progress back to the floor by waiting to schedule it, giving people time to work against the bill.

Assuming that a bill passes its third reading and subsequent vote, it is sent to the second chamber for the same process. At this point the other leader, the Speaker or President depending on the originating chamber, has the chance to affect the legislation. The bill must be assigned to a committee again, and must be negotiated again. There are many nuances to this process which are not going to be addressed here, but there are two important things to take away from this discussion. First, committee assignments are very important, as this is the first and most common place for bills to die. Second, barring committee assignments and Chair assignments themselves, the Speaker and President still have a large degree of direct power, if they choose to claim it, over the fate of legislation.10

Within the Oregon legislature there is an anomaly in terms of power. The President of the Senate holds a power that the Speaker doesn’t, this is the power to send a bill back to committee when it comes out of a committee for its second reading. If the President doesn’t like a bill he or she can choose to intervene without the input of other legislators and send a bill that has passed one committee to another committee where it must be debated again. Usually this signs a death-warrant for the bill. Again, if the President wants a bill to die, they can send it to a committee where they know it will not make it back to the floor. Unlike the President, the Speaker of the House cannot do this on their own but must hold a floor vote to make this happen, which acts as a check on their power.

Now that we can see the importance of committees, we can see the importance of committee assignments.

Committee assignments

Depending on how the President and Speaker choose to assign legislators to committees the committees either act independently, concurrently, or somewhere in the middle with regard to the Speaker’s or President’s inclinations. Of course, this is not true in every situation. Much of what happens in a session is driven by individual legislators themselves. Bill Bradbury, former President of the Senate, indicated in an interview that committee assignments are not made in a vacuum. Individual legislators have preferences and opinions about what committees they want to sit on. Thus, the Speaker and President have to take this into account when making appointments. The way that members can act on their committee preferences is by withholding their vote to appoint the President or Speaker during the Organizational Session until they know that they will receive committee appointments that they approve of.11

Dave Hunt, the Speaker of the House for the 2009-2011 legislative session, indicated that there are many different ways for a Speaker or President to make committee assignments. They can be made by assigning people that have backgrounds or interest in a committee area to a committee on the subject. They can be made by creating committees that the Speaker or President knows will pass legislation they desire (committees that will support the Speaker or President’s goals). They can be made by allowing the minority party to make its own committee assignments for its members, instead of the President or Speaker making those appointments. Or they can be made in other ways. Each of these appointment styles have a distinct effect on legislative session outcomes.12

Committees are the bread and butter of legislative politics. While the members eventually must vote on legislation for it to become a law, they only vote on legislation that committees send to the floor. The first gatekeeper every bill must face is its committee and the Chair of that committee.

Committee Chairs

Of all the committee assignments that the President and Speaker make, none is more important than that of the Committee Chairs. Committee Chairs preside over their designated committee, determine the daily agenda, and assign which bills get heard and voted on. These are the people that the Speaker and President rely on to kill or give life to legislation. If a Chair chooses, they can never hear a piece of legislation, even if the Speaker or President wants it heard. Depending on how assignments are made, Chairs can either be responsive to the Speaker or President or they can ignore their wishes.

In some cases the Speaker or President makes the choice to let the legislature do as it will with minimal interference. This is another way they have control, by letting the Chairs have more power. In this particular example, the President or Speaker drops their role of ringmaster, allowing the Chairs and Committees to do what they see fit, with little or no involvement on the part of the Speaker or President, other than assigning bills to committees and assisting with negotiations. Here, committee Chairs take on the role of chief legislator for their committee. In essence the Speaker and President can give Chairs a good bit of their power, which dilutes the ability of the Speaker and President to control the session.

Bill Referrals

Linked to the committee’s power is the power the Speaker’s and President’s have to refer bills to committees. The power the Speaker and President can exert in this area is partly dependent on the President’s or Speaker’s philosophy on how to run the legislature. If the President or Speaker chooses a more hands-off approach, then their ability to kill or pass bills by assigning them to committees that will look favorably on them is reduced because committee assignments are made without the thought of controlling outcomes. If they make committee appointments with the goal of passing an agenda, or having committees that are willing to work with them, then the amount of power that they have in this area increases exponentially.13

Committee assignments, committee referrals, and Chair assignments are the three most influential ways that the Speaker and President can affect legislation. There are other powers that they have, but none are as direct as these.

 Funding

There is a role that Speakers and Presidents play that is much more subtle, but which doesn’t see the light of day very often: that of campaign funding organizer. In most states the Speaker and President play a relatively large role in campaign funding for their particular party. In the mid-1960s a group of men in the California Legislature carried out a sort of revolution using the role of the Speaker to influence campaign funding. Jesse Unruh, Willie Brown, and others found that the positions of leadership enabled them to direct campaign contributions to certain legislative candidates in order to influence the outcome of elections.14 The way that it worked was that the Speaker, President or other leadership figure would ask people who wanted to fund their campaigns, or candidates that were ensured re-election, to fund candidates who were new to politics or whose races were going to be hotly contested. Through this mechanism Speakers and Presidents were able to play a more powerful hand in overall state politics by swaying election outcomes.

Overnight, managing campaign funding became one of the powers of the Speaker and the President. While this power does not have a direct effect on legislation, it does have a profound impact on state politics. Speakers and Presidents are able to solidify majority party rule by using their position to manage the distribution of campaign funds to ensure a certain legislative direction for multiple sessions in a row, and push an agenda, if they choose, through supporting certain candidates, and not supporting others.

In Oregon things are different. The Speaker and President don’t usually act directly as a funding manager for their parties, and during the legislative session in Oregon legislators are not allowed to accept campaign contributions. This led to the creation of Political Action Committees (PAC’s) that the two parties to use for this purpose. These organizations are clearinghouses for money donated to a party. PAC’s are allowed to spend money on behalf of a cause or a candidate above and beyond what the actual candidate or campaign is allowed to spend on their own according to law.

In Oregon, the Speaker or President occasionally becomes the head of a PAC, for the purpose of distributing campaign funds, but this is not the norm. This removal of the money from the legislation is an important feature of Oregon politics as it can lend more legitimacy to the political process.

In-Session and Out-of-Session

When the legislature is out of session Speakers and Presidents still preside over chamber business. Many committees meet in the interim (the time between sessions) to prepare bills for the next session, hold informational hearings, or conduct emergency work. However, with the absence of bills to work through the legislature, the role of President’s and Speakers moves more towards that of regular legislators. They work in their district, plan for the next session with other legislators and their party, run campaigns for re-election, and hold jobs like the rest of us.

When the legislature is actually in session the role of the President and Speaker changes a great deal. During session their control over legislation, as detailed earlier, consists of assigning bills to committee, presiding over floor sessions, creating the daily agenda for the House or Senate, sitting on their own committees, working their legislation through the legislature, negotiating on legislation, and, depending on the Speaker or President, coordinating legislation. The degrees to which Speakers and Presidents do these things depends heavily on their leadership philosophy.

As their role changes throughout the session, their ability to influence legislation changes as well. If the Speaker or President chooses to create committees that are responsive to their wishes, they will have more control over legislation. If they have created committees that are more independent and take a more hands-off role in the legislative session they will have less control over legislation.

Speakers and Presidents forcefully come back into the picture towards the end of session when time gets tight and there are many bills still waiting to have a floor vote. It is then that their power as negotiator has its biggest potential.

Throughout any legislative session there are constant negotiations among legislators, advocates, interested parties, the two chambers, the governor, and others. As the end of the session starts to approach there are usually a large number of bills that need to be voted on, and there isn’t always time to hear them all. Sometimes there is time to hear them all, but there are not always the number of votes needed to pass them. It is during this time that the Speaker and President become the chief-negotiators for their respective chambers.

Insiders call this horse-trading, others call it negotiating, and the public usually calls this frustrating. Any way you look at it the Speaker and President have the same job, which is to ensure the passage of legislation. They negotiate between the parties in their own chamber, trading votes on bills for votes on other bills. They negotiate between legislators, trading a vote here for a vote there so that legislation can pass. And they negotiate between the chambers, passing a bill here or a bill there, in return for some other bill being passed by the other chamber. While this seems like a huge job, it is really just an escalation of what the Speaker and President have been doing the whole session, and even before the session starts.

While the Speaker’s and President’s roles may change as the session changes, they are always in a position of power and influence.

Conclusion

Speakers and Presidents are extremely important to the outcomes of a legislative session. Everything from their committee and Chair appointments and philosophy on leadership, to their bill referrals and skill at negotiating have a profound impact on what the legislature is able to do, and what it actually does.

Ringmaster, taskmaster, image maintainer, coordinator, chief-negotiator—these are all synonyms that can be used to describe the Speaker and the President. Their role in the process is multifaceted and ever changing. Their power over the process runs deep and can drastically change what legislation becomes law. The Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate deserve their mantle as figureheads of their respective chambers. Without the Speaker and the President the legislature really would be the rampant, uncontrolled beast that the media occasionally brands it.

________________________

  1. Dave Hunt, Speaker of the House, 2008-2009, interview by Isaac Butman, May 11, 2015. Mr. Hunt indicated that his personal philosophy as Speaker was to let the chamber members do as they would and not control the session to his personal liking, but that during his time as a legislator he saw other speakers kill bills they didn’t like or promote bills that they did like. This indicates the control the Speaker and President can have over any given legislative session if they choose to take it. This is also indicative of the fact that the outcomes of a legislative session depend heavily on how the Speaker and President choose to preside.
  1. Richard A. Clucas, Mark Henkels, and Brent S. Steel,Oregon Politics and Government (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.), 140.
  1. Secretary of State. 2013-2014 Oregon Blue Book. (United States of America, Oregon, Compiled and Published by Kate Brown – Secretary of State: Salem, OR, 2013), 382. It is dwarfed only by Article XI, Finance, and Article XV, Miscellaneous. Constitution of Oregon 2011 edition.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Oregon Senate Protocol & Decorum; Seventy-eighth Oregon Legislative Assembly; Rules of the Senate with the Oregon Constitution and Selected Statutory Provisions; Oregon House of Representatives Rules of the House, 78th Legislative Assembly, 2015-2016; Oregon House of Representatives Parliamentary Process and Protocols, 78th Legislative Assembly, 2015-2016.
  1. Dave Hunt, Speaker of the House, 2008-2009, interview by Isaac Butman, May 11, 2015.
  1. Rosenthal, Alan.Engines of Democracy: Politics & Policymaking in State Legislatures. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009.), 255. Usually there are a few committees that have a broad scope of bills that they can hear do to their jurisdiction. Presidents and Speakers can use these broadly sweeping committees to kill bills.
  1. Ibid., 308. About 25% of bills make it out of their originating committee, but only about 10% actually become law in a legislative session. The difference in these two numbers can be attributed to bills being killed in the opposite chambers committees.
  1. Green, Matthew N.Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.), 3. Here, the author indicates that Speakers (and we can infer Presidents as well) have goals beyond their own or their parties to achieve. To do this they have to look at all the players: legislators; parties; lobbyists; and so on, in order to achieve their goals.
  1. Squire, Peverill, and Gary Moncrief.State Legislatures Today: Politics Under the Domes. (Boston, MA: Longman, 2010.), 140. In this book the power of committees is referred to as the “gate-keeping” power. Speakers and President wield this power directly, through assigning bills to committees, and indirectly through assigning members to committees.
  1. Bill Bradbury, President of the Senate 1993-1994, interview by Isaac Butman, May 14, 2015. Mr. Bradbury indicted that committee assignments are not made by the Speaker or President alone, rather, individual members make an impact through their vote for Speaker and President appointments during the Organizational Session.
  1. Dave Hunt, Speaker of the House, 2008-2009, interview by Isaac Butman, May 11, 2015. During the interview Mr. Hunt indicated that there are multiple styles of leadership, and multiple ways that appointments are made. Further conversation made clear that these initial appointments have an effect on what Speakers and Presidents are able to do once the legislature is in session.
  1. Derived from footnote.11
  1. Richardson, James.Willie Brown: A Biography. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.), 322.

Bibliography

Courtney, Peter President of the Senate, and Ginny Burdick, President Pro Tempore, and Lori Brocker, Secretary of the Senate. Seventy-eighth Oregon Legislative Assembly Rules of the Senate with the Oregon Constitution and Selected Statutory Provisions.” United States of America, Oregon, Office of the Secretary of the Senate, Salem, OR, 2015.

Green, Matthew N. Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

Office of the Chief Clerk. OREGON HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES PARLIAMENTARY PROCESS AND PROTOCOLS 78th Legislative Assembly 2015-2016.” United States of America, Oregon, Office of the Chief Clerk, Salem, OR, 2015.

Office of the Secretary of the Senate. Oregon Senate Protocol & Decorum.” United States of America, Oregon, Office of the Secretary of the Senate, Salem, OR, 2015.

Oregon Politics and Government, Edited by Richard A. Clucas, Mark Henkels, and Brent S. Steel. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Representative Tina Kotek, Speaker of the House. OREGON HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES RULES of the HOUSE 78th Legislative Assembly 2015 – 2016.” United States of America, Oregon, Office of the Chief Clerk, Salem, OR, 2015.

Richardson, James. Willie Brown: A Biography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Rosenthal, Alan. Engines of Democracy: Politics & Policymaking in State Legislatures. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009.

Secretary of State. “2013-2014 Oregon Blue Book.” United States of America, Oregon, Compiled and Published by Kate Brown – Secretary of State: Salem, OR, 2013.

Squire, Peverill, and Gary Moncrief. State Legislatures Today: Politics Under the Domes. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010.

Squire, Peverill, and Keith E. Hamm. 101 Chambers: Congress, State Legislatures, and the Future of Legislative Studies. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2005.

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