Commentary: The Role of the Speaker of the House

by Del. Ken Plum May 4, 2017 at 10:30 am 17 Comments

Last week I attended the retirement reception for the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. The Honorable William Howell of Stafford is retiring after 30 years in the House with 14 years as Speaker. His tenure is the second longest in the modern period

The Republican majority in the House wasted no time in picking his successor, who was known during the last session as the “Speaker designee.”

Speaker Howell was the 54th Speaker of the House; Edmund Pendleton was the first, serving for one year in 1776. The predecessor to the House of Delegates, the House of Burgesses, under the Royal Colony of Virginia, had speakers as well.

The role of the speaker is to allow for orderly debate by requiring all speaking to go through the speaker–hence the name. Under today’s rules, as in the past, members must be recognized by the speaker to request to speak or to ask a question and must receive permission to speak. No debate is allowed among members without going through the speaker. While it may sound cumbersome, it actually works to keep debate orderly and to prevent the chaos that could result from members shouting at each other directly.

The role of the Speaker has evolved over the years. Far from just directing debate, the speaker has tremendous other powers. For example, the speaker appoints the members of committees, assigns bills to committees and renders opinions on enforcing rules and parliamentary procedures.

Up until 1950 there had been 48 persons who had served as Speaker of the House for an average of 3.5 years each. Since 1950 there have been six speakers serving an average of eleven years each. One speaker during that period left office after two years because of a sex scandal. If he is not considered, the remaining speakers have served for an average of 13 years.

I served under the last five speakers. My observation on the office of the speaker is that it has become increasingly partisan. In 1950 Delegate E. Blackburn Moore of Frederick County who was a leading lieutenant in the Byrd Machine became speaker and served in that role for 18 years. He ruled with an iron fist. Many of the stories that are still told about abusing the role of speaker come from his era when he refused to put Republicans on committees that met. The House was referred to as “Blackie’s House,” borrowing the name of a popular restaurant of the time.

His successor was the Gentleman from Mathews, the Honorable John Warren Cooke, who was the first speaker under whom I served. He was a sharp contrast to Moore and treated all members alike regardless of political party. Since his service the office has been held by a series of nice individuals of both parties who have expanded the role to be in practice, if not name, the majority leader of the House.

With the change in individuals holding the role of speaker and with the potential change in the near future of the political party controlling the House, it is too bad that there cannot be a discussion of elevating the role of speaker to be the leader of the House and not the leader of the majority party. This kind of thing is not political nature for sure, but it would be the right thing to do and would change the outcomes of legislative sessions.

  • The Constitutionalist

    Unless of course the tables were turned…

  • Mike M

    I am reminded of the fox decrying the foxguards on the henhouse.

  • Retired

    I wish the second and final sentence of this article was “I too am also retiring”.

    • The Constitutionalist

      Me too. Every Thursday I come here and hope we’ll get the good news. Alas, we will wait until next week.

      • Jenny Gibbers
        • The Constitutionalist


          • Jenny Gibbers

            LOL – Aries CONFIRMED !!!!

            Here more info just in case:

            While the Flower Moon might be rocky and uncomfortable, by May 15 Aries can relax, and take their time with decisions and plans. They should use this time to focus on their finances, and work on making self improvements.

            May 15th, pay day?

          • The Constitutionalist

            Unfortunately no.

            Nearly 100% of my compensation is paid as bonuses and commissions which are generally paid within a few days of a project being completed.

            Any day could be payday for me.

          • Jenny Gibbers


    • 40yearsinreston

      He will never retire as long as he gets handsomely paid for doing nothing except bloviating
      With a bit of luck his young opponent will win

  • Jenny Gibbers

    Appreciate the wisdom, thanks Ken. The two party system is a recipe for disaster and to expand the role of the speaker does make sense!

    • 40yearsinreston

      The speaker is not the governor

      • Jenny Gibbers

        I think everyone agrees with you!

      • Jenny Gibbers

        The governor is not the president

  • Anonymous Poster

    But I thought the speaker doesn’t necessarily have to be from the majority party, it’s up to the house to elect whomever they choose to elect. In practice it’s because of whoever has the majority of seats in the house. The only way such a system survives is if it benefits the party in power, whichever party that may be.

    This is a pretty universal thing throughout our nation, and bemoaning of the two-party system aside, it works pretty well. It’s not like the Vice President in the US Senate which is primarily procedural, but it’s inherently political. I don’t think that’s really a bad thing either, it’s a political body. It’s like trying to argue that the president shouldn’t be political: Of course he is, it’s the highest political office in the land. What else can you honestly expect?

    Sorry Del. Plum, you’re being very silly this time around.

  • 40yearsinreston

    Ken suddenly realizes that the role of the speaker is partisan ?
    Excuse me, but he must have been asleep for his entire term
    The speaker is elected by the majority party, so what else did Ken expect ?
    The majority party leads the house and doesn’t need another leader
    He must have the community organizer ​bug
    And should seek help

    • The Constitutionalist

      Ken wants the one party system. Where there are no differing view points, just his and no one else’s.

      Oh wait that turns into communism.


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