House leadership reshuffle 101: Who does what?

House Republicans are voting today to fill leadership positions in the wake of majority leader Eric Cantor's surprise defeat in the Virginia primary. The job of majority whip could open up, too.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California leaves a Republican Conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 18, 2014.

House Republicans are holding votes Thursday for as many as two members of their caucus to fill key leadership positions. The elections were triggered by the unexpected primary defeat of the current majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, who will resign from the GOP leadership on July 31.

The far-and-away favorite to succeed Mr. Cantor is Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, currently the Republican whip. If he is indeed elected majority leader, there are two leading candidates to succeed him as whip: Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, the current chief deputy whip.

At the end of the day, the majority leader and whip, whoever they are, will work closely with Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. Together they will hold the top three jobs in the GOP leadership. But what exactly do these jobs entail? Here’s a primer.

Speaker of the House – top job

The speaker is the public face of the majority party and of the House as a whole, and the speaker’s office runs the house administratively. 

His or her power lies in the ability to set the party’s legislative and political agenda, though that is far easier said than done. Democrat and Republican speakers alike point to the difficulty of holding together a caucus of differing views or moving it in a direction. Speaker Boehner likens it to trying to keep “frogs in a wheelbarrow.”

In the post-earmark era, it’s harder to keep members in line through gifts of pork. One tool of influence is committee positions. In consultation with the majority leader, the speaker controls the steering committee, which decides committee size and makeup.

The speaker is also the official presiding officer in the chamber, but rarely wields the gavel. That duty is usually divvied among other party members. One reason he’s not running the floor is because he’s off doing other things – like fundraising, which is a big part of his duties as party leader.

The speaker is also second in line to the president, after the vice president. That’s why the men with squiggly wires in their ears follow him around.

The speaker is elected by the whole House every two years, at the start of every newly elected Congress.

Majority leader – the No. 2

This is the nuts-and-bolts job of running the House floor. And it's a huge job. The majority leader determines what legislation is brought to the floor and when.

He also sets the House calendar. Under majority leader Cantor, representatives get at least a week off each month to be in their districts, and this being an election year, the House will recess for four weeks before election day in November – and another week afterward.

Generally, the majority leader aims to bring consensus and set priorities. He also, like the speaker, is heavily involved in fundraising. The position is considered an open door to the speakership – though it doesn’t always work out that way.

The majority leader is elected by the party conference in a secret ballot.

The majority whip – No. 3 job

The term whip originates from the hunting term “whipping in” – keeping the hounds from straying from the pack. That’s exactly what the No. 3 in leadership has to do, round up votes for legislation to pass.

The whip can’t do all that work alone, so he selects a chief deputy whip and then a slew of other deputy whips. It’s a complex process that involves reaching out to all members of the party caucus – in this case, 233 Republicans. The whip and majority leader have to work closely together for a successful outcome.

The whip is also elected by members of the party by secret ballot. 

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