Speakership: a seat of power

Who were the great Speakers of the House? That depends on whom you ask. But many lists include: Henry Clay. He was just another freshman representative in 1811. So his colleagues elected him Speaker, and he served intermittently for 7 years. The first ``great'' speaker, he introduced a new era of congressional assertiveness. As leader of the ``War Hawks,'' he pressured President Madison into the War of 1812 with Britain.

He also established the right of the House to oversee White House administration of laws passed by Congress. All this for $8 a day.

Thomas Brackett Reed. In 1889, Reed became Speaker and was immediately confronted with the most volatile political issue of the day: Reconstruction.

The 6-foot, 3-inch, 275-pound Speaker ruled the House (a body that led, he once wrote, ``a gelatinous existence - the scorn of all vertebrate animals'') with a strong hand.

Joe Cannon. ``Uncle Joe'' Cannon succeeded Reed, and, thanks to the newfound powers of the speakership, became the most autocratic speaker the House has ever seen.

During Cannon's reign the Speaker's absolute power to give or refuse the floor to members was established. This crushed the rights of minority party members. With other powers, the Speaker was virtually assured of forcing any legislative agenda he wished through the Congress. In 1910 House members rebelled, and ``Czar'' Cannon was stripped of many of his powers. But the speakership still retains great influence.

Sam Rayburn. Democrat Rayburn served twice as Speaker for a total of 17 years, longer than anyone else. He nurtured the careers of a number of young House members, including Lyndon B. Johnson and the three Speakers who succeeded Rayburn - John W. McCormick, Carl Albert, and Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Though often at the mercy of a clique of powerful committee chairmen, known as ``the 12 cardinals,'' Rayburn often got his way with the members of the House through a combination of personal persuasion and old-fashioned arm-twisting.

Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. Some congressional experts say O'Neill could have exercised a bit more discipline over House Democrats. But during the last six years of his decade-long tenure as Speaker (the longest continuous period in history), he was the first chief officer of the House to face a Senate and President of a different party since John Nance Gardner in 1932.

``He stood his ground for his principles at a time when other Democrats cut and run,'' says Richard Bolling, a former high-ranking House member. ``For that he deserves the greatest credit.''

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