Reflections on the Role of the Speaker in the Modern Day House of Representatives
On November 12, 2003, Speaker of the House Dennis J. Hastert delivered the following address at the Library of Congress
Bob [refering to former House Republican Leaer Robert H. Michel], thank you for that kind introduction. I want to thank you, Bob, for what you have meant to me. You were my first mentor here in Washington. You, Bob, the man who should have and deserved to be Speaker, taught me the value of patience. You took me under your wing when I first came to Congress, and showed me how Congress worked. You helped me with my Committee assignments, and gave me my first leadership responsibility…heading up the Republican Leaders Health Care Task Force in response to First Lady Hillary Clinton’s efforts on health care. You taught me that it is the workhorse who wins in the legislative game, not the show horse.Your cheerful demeanor hid a will of steel, and your abundant common-sense served your colleagues and your country well. Bob, we know that you are going through a tough time with loss of your beloved wife Corinne. We share your grief. Know that our thoughts and prayers are with you during this most difficult time.
I appreciate this opportunity to reflect on my current job. Clearly, the role of Speaker has changed over the years. It has changed because of the times, because of those who have occupied the office, and because of the nature of the institution. Joseph Cannon, the man from Danville, ruled from the Speaker’s Chair with Iron power. Tip O’Neill ruled with Irish charm. Newt Gingrich brought star power to the office. Sam Rayburn ruled for a generation, while Joe Martin had only a fleeting chance to assert Republican control. Each used their principles to guide them in times of great challenge. O’Neill was challenged by a popular President, Carl Albert was challenged by a Constitutional crisis, Rayburn through war, and Tom Foley by a series of institutional crises. I have my own set of principles that have worked for me.
I never thought I would be Speaker. I didn’t run for the job. I didn’t campaign for it. I didn’t play the P.R. game. I just did my job as best I could for my constituents and for my colleagues. In fact, if you had asked me to predict Newt Gingrich’s successor, I wouldn’t have been on my own list.
My first principle is one I learned from my friend Bob Michel. To be good at the job of Speaker, you must be willing to put in the time to be a good listener. By this, I mean you must listen to the members of the House. Before I became Speaker, I thought I knew the importance of paying attention to member’s needs. I had served in the Whip organization when Bob Michel was leader and I served as Chief Deputy Whip when Newt became Speaker. When you are a Whip, you need to listen, because to get and win votes, you need to hear what the members are saying. But when you are Speaker, the sheer volume of voices is increased, and the problems become more difficult to solve. I learned that the best way to find solutions was to get people around the table to talk it through. When you have a small majority, like I have had for pretty much my entire tenure, you have to do a lot of listening. And when you talk, you have to keep your word.
That brings me to my second principle. When you are Speaker, people expect you to keep your word, and they will not quickly forgive you if you cannot deliver. I learned that keeping your word is the most important part of this job. You are better off not saying anything than making a promise that you cannot keep. And you have to keep both the big promises and the small promises.
My third principle is that a Speaker must respect the power of regular order. I am a regular order guy. I think it is important to rely on the Committees to do their hearings and mark-ups. I don’t like to create task forces to craft legislation. The Committees are there for a reason, and we should use them. There are times when you need to establish working groups to coordinate the work of standing committees when big projects cross jurisdictional lines, but those working groups should “coordinate” not supplant the Committee structure. I have also found that it is easy to find the problems in legislation through the Committee process.
My fourth principle is that while a Speaker should strive to be fair, he also is judged by how he gets the job done. The job of the Speaker is to rule fairly, but ultimately to carry out the will of the Majority. Unlike some other parliamentary bodies, the Speaker in the U.S. House is the leader of his party. He is not merely a disinterested arbiter of parliamentary rules. This creates a unique tension within the office of the Speaker. It is not always easy to be fair when you have a vested interest in the outcome. But if the Chair is seen as being unfair, the likely result is a breakdown in parliamentary comity. We take the job of fairness very seriously. We seek out our best parliamentary experts to serve in the Chair as Speakers Pro Tem, people like Ray LaHood, Doc Hastings, Mac Thornberry, Mike Simpson and others. We also have professional Parliamentarians who are avowedly non-partisan. Charlie and his team play a critical role in advising me on jurisdictional referrals and parliamentary judgments from the Chair. This is tradition stretching back beyond Louis Deschler, and it is a good tradition. We make certain that those serving in the Chair do not serve on the Committees of Jurisdiction for the business on the floor. And we try to be fair in the Rules Committee process. We guarantee the Minority the right to recommit the bill with instructions, giving them one last chance to make their best arguments to amend the pending legislation. But while we strive to be fair, we also strive to get the job done. We are not the Senate. The rules of the House, while they protect the rights of the Minority, they also insure that the will of the majority of the House will prevail. So, on occasion, you will see us take effective action to get the job done. Sometimes, we have a hard time convincing the majority of the House to vote like a majority of the House, so sometimes you will see votes stay open longer than usual. But the hallmark of an effective leadership is one that can deliver the votes. And we have been an effective leadership.
My fifth principle is to please the majority of the majority. On occasion, a particular issue might excite a majority made up mostly of the minority. Campaign finance is a particularly good example of this phenomenon. The job of Speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority. As in campaign finance reform, our majority thought it was a bad bill that weakened the party structure and promoted abuse by special interests. As a side note, the emergence of 527 organizations in the next election will prove our point that special interests, and not political parties, will have more influence because of campaign finance reform. So we fought the efforts by advocates of campaign regulation to pass it. They did what they thought they had to do, getting enough signatures to sign a discharge petition. I made them go through that process twice in order to prove two points. First, I wanted my troops to know I opposed the bill. Second, I wanted to let them know that I had no choice but to schedule the legislation. I was not going to abandon my party’s position under any circumstances. On each piece of legislation, I actively seek to bring our party together. I do not feel comfortable scheduling any controversial legislation unless I know we have the votes on our side first.
My sixth principle is the Speaker’s job is to focus on the House and nothing but the House. This is a big job. It is a time consuming job. And it is an exhausting job. I said that when I became Speaker, I would focus only on running the House. And I found out that means more than just sitting in the Speaker’s chair. It means doing those things necessary to keeping the majority, whether that means fund-raising for incumbents or campaigning for challengers. You don’t see me spending too much time on television shows, or giving big speeches. I have no interest in running for President or making the jump to the Senate. This is an important and big job. And it requires singular focus to get it done.
My final principle is my most important principle: Never forget who sent you to Congress in the first place: your constituents. I get home to Illinois every weekend. Of course, it is nice to see my wife, who inevitably gives me a list of chores to complete when I get there. But it is also important to see my friends and my constituents. It is very easy to get lost in the muddle of Washington D.C. The world of amendments, campaign fund-raisers, motions to recommit, and jurisdictional battles, all of which are foreign to Yorkville, Illinois. As a matter of fact, most of my constituents are none too impressed with the trappings of power. My constituents sent me to Washington not to argue, not to debate. They sent me here to get the job done. They are not content to play the blame game, they don’t want to hear about how this bill died in the House or that bill died in the Senate. They want us to pass laws that make their lives better. When I go home, I am not Mr. Speaker. To my wife and friends and voters, I am Denny. And I tell you, that healthy dose of humility does me a world of good every time I come back here to Washington. It helps me to connect to what the American people are really thinking about, and it helps me to understand what concerns my colleagues are facing.
At the end of the day, the Speaker of the House is really just the guy who stands up for the people of America. In our Constitution, the Speaker of the House is the first officer mentioned, because in our system of government, it is the people who rule. Since January of 1999, I have had the great honor and privilege to be that guy.
Thank you for inviting me here today for this most fascinating symposium. I wish you the best of luck for the rest of the day.