First Female Speaker To Preside at State of the Union

By Jeffrey Thomas
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - When President Bush delivers his annual State of the Union address on January 23, sitting behind him will be a female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, for the first time in American history.

The speaker is one of the most powerful positions in the United States government, according to Karlyn Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.  The speaker is next in line of succession to the presidency after the vice president and controls the flow of legislation in the House.  Because any bill related to funding must originate in the House, the speaker, in effect, controls the purse strings of the U.S. government.

Pelosi, a Democrat from California, took over as speaker, the top post in the House, on January 4 when her party assumed control of the chamber as a result of the November 2006 midterm elections.  Shortly after those elections, President Bush, a Republican, said Pelosi’s ascension to the post of speaker is “historic for our country. And as the father of young women … I think it's important.”

When Pelosi, 67, accepted the gavel as speaker and convened the 110th Congress, she shared that historic moment with some of her six grandchildren and the children of other House members at the podium. “For our daughters and our granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling,” Pelosi said, referring to the fact that the top positions in Congress long have been dominated by men.  (See related article.)

Pelosi’s first career was as a stay-at-home mother to five children, and she ran for Congress only after her youngest began college. Elected to the House at 47, she rose through the ranks and became minority leader of the House in the 108th Congress (2003-2004) before becoming speaker.

The speaker is a role unfamiliar to many outside the United States because in parliamentary systems the leader of the executive branch (President Bush) and the leaders of the legislature (Pelosi in the House, and Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Senate) cannot come from opposing parties.

Even to many Americans, Pelosi remains a new and relatively unknown figure, despite her 20 years in the House, Bowman said recently in an article in Roll Call. In a survey released in December 2006 by the Pew Research Center, Pelosi received a favorable rating from a majority (54 percent) of Americans who could rate her, but more than 41 percent of those polled said they were unfamiliar with her.

However, this is very likely to change. Pelosi “is already well known among her colleagues, who have accorded her the high honor of the Speaker's position,” Bowman told USINFO January 17 in an e-mail interview.  “She will be very visible in the weeks and months to come, and more Americans will learn about her and what she believes.”


As speaker, Pelosi has three roles: representative of her congressional district in California, leader of her party in the House and leader of the House as a whole.

The speaker’s responsibilities and powers are not specified by the Constitution but have evolved over the years and are affected by a particular speaker’s personality and political skills - with some speakers wielding much more power than others. 

One major source of power is the speaker’s ability to control the legislative calendar and, in cooperation with the majority leader, to manage the agenda.  When a bill is introduced by a member of Congress from either party, the speaker determines to which of the 21 House committees it goes - a decision that greatly can affect the bill’s fate because a bill almost never is passed by the House without the support of the committee that considers it. 

If the bill makes it out of committee, the speaker decides whether and when to bring it to the floor (the full House) for debate and a vote. Of the more than 8,000 bills introduced and referred to committees each Congress, only a small fraction are brought to the floor.

As speaker, Pelosi presides over the House and can call on individual members to speak - or not - as she chooses, and can control the flow of debate through rulings and decisions.  Pelosi also can delegate her powers as presiding officer to other members, thus distinguishing them from the more than 430 other members.

Another source of power relates to appointments. The speaker leads the appointment process for the chairs of the various committees and subcommittees in the House, including conference committees, which negotiate a compromise when House and Senate versions of a bill differ.

The speaker also approves the makeup and itineraries of congressional delegations traveling domestically and overseas and presides over joint sessions of Congress during special occasions such as the State of the Union address, the inauguration of the president and addresses by invited foreign leaders.

Some have compared Pelosi’s job to that of chief executive officer and chairwoman.  Congress, however, is not a hierarchical organization like most corporations, but rather a political, collegial body with power flowing in many directions. Each member must work with the speaker but also his fellow members of Congress from both parties, and each member ultimately must face the most powerful force of all - the American voter.

For more information, see The U.S. Congress.