The party leadership in Congress controls the actions of Congress. Leaders are elected by the two-party conferences in each chamber. In the House of Representatives, these are the House Democratic Conference and the House Republican Conference. These conferences meet regularly and separately not only to elect their leaders but also to discuss important issues and strategies for moving policy forward. Based on the number of members in each conference, one conference becomes the majority conference and the other becomes the minority conference. Independents like Senator Bernie Sanders will typically join one or the other major party conference, as a matter of practicality and often based on ideological affinity. Without the membership to elect their own leadership, independents would have a very difficult time getting things done in Congress unless they had a relationship with the leaders.
Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (a), the majority leader in the Senate, and Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (b), the Speaker of the House, are the most powerful congressional leaders in their respective chambers.
Despite the power of the conferences, however, the most important leadership position in the House is actually elected by the entire body of representatives. This position is called the Speaker of the House and is the only House officer mentioned in the Constitution. The Constitution does not require the Speaker to be a member of the House, although to date, all fifty-four Speakers have been. The Speaker is the presiding officer, the administrative head of the House, the partisan leader of the majority party in the House, and an elected representative of a single congressional district. As a testament to the importance of the Speaker, since 1947, the holder of this position has been second in line to succeed the president in an emergency, after the vice president.
The Speaker serves until his or her party loses, or until he or she is voted out of the position or chooses to step down. Republican Speaker John Boehner became the latest Speaker to walk away from the position when it appeared his position was in jeopardy. This event shows how the party conference (or caucus) oversees the leadership as much as, if not more than, the leadership oversees the party membership in the chamber. The Speaker is invested with quite a bit of power, such as the ability to assign bills to committees and decide when a bill will be presented to the floor for a vote. The Speaker also rules on House procedures, often delegating authority for certain duties to other members. He or she appoints members and chairs to committees, creates select committees to fulfill a specific purpose and then disband, and can even select a member to be speaker pro tempore, who acts as Speaker in the Speaker’s absence. Finally, when the Senate joins the House in a joint session, the Speaker presides over these sessions, because they are usually held in the House of Representatives.
Below the Speaker, the majority and minority conferences each elect two leadership positions arranged in hierarchical order. At the top of the hierarchy are the floor leaders of each party. These are generally referred to as the majority and minority leaders. The minority leader has a visible if not always a powerful position. As the official leader of the opposition, he or she technically holds the rank closest to that of the Speaker, makes strategy decisions, and attempts to keep order within the minority. However, the majority rules the day in the House, like a cartel. On the majority side, because it holds the speakership, the majority leader also has considerable power. Historically, moreover, the majority leader tends to be in the best position to assume the speakership when the current Speaker steps down.
Below these leaders are the two party’s respective whips. A whip’s job, as the name suggests, is to whip up votes and otherwise enforce party discipline. Whips make the rounds in Congress, telling members the position of the leadership and the collective voting strategy, and sometimes they wave various carrots and sticks in front of recalcitrant members to bring them in line. The remainder of the leadership positions in the House include a handful of chairs and assistantships.
Like the House, the Senate also has majority and minority leaders and whips, each with duties very similar to those of their counterparts in the House. Unlike the House, however, the Senate doesn’t have a Speaker. The duties and powers held by the Speaker in the House fall to the majority leader in the Senate. Another difference is that, according to the U.S. Constitution, the Senate’s president is actually the elected vice president of the United States, but he or she may vote only in case of a tie. Apart from this and very few other exceptions, the president of the Senate does not actually operate in the Senate. Instead, the Constitution allows for the Senate to choose a president pro tempore—usually the most senior senator of the majority party—who presides over the Senate. Despite the title, the job is largely a formal and powerless role. The real power in the Senate is in the hands of the majority leader and the minority leader. Like the Speaker of the House, the majority leader is the chief spokesperson for the majority party, but unlike in the House he or she does not run the floor alone. Because of the traditions of unlimited debate and the filibuster, the majority and minority leaders often occupy the floor together in an attempt to keep things moving along. At times, their interactions are intense and partisan, but for the Senate to get things done, they must cooperate to get the sixty votes needed to run this super-majority legislative institution.