Congressional leadership: An explainer on how power brokers are chosen


Voters directly elect representatives to serve in Congress, but the leaders of those 435 House members and 100 senators are chosen through an internal – and, for many Americans, largely opaque – process. Yet congressional leaders play a critical role in setting legislative agendas, wrangling votes, and communicating party priorities to the public.

The House has three main leadership roles: speaker, majority leader, and minority leader. The Senate has majority and minority leaders. In both chambers, the majority and minority whips also play an important, albeit secondary, role.

Why We Wrote This

American voters elect members of Congress, but House and Senate members choose their leaders. Understanding leadership roles and their powerful influence is part of informed citizenship.

For the upcoming Congress, the leaders and whips of both parties in both chambers have already been elected, by secret ballots.

The speaker vote is expected Jan. 3. California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican nominee, is still working to secure the necessary votes to win the gavel, and can only afford to lose a handful of Republicans.

The speaker of the House is particularly consequential because that person is the third most powerful leader in government after the president and vice president, notes Sara Angevine, an assistant professor of political science at Whittier College. “[Leadership] roles and the principles of deliberative democracy are very, very important for the entire electorate to be aware of.”

Voters directly elect representatives to serve in Congress, but the leaders of those 435 House members and 100 senators are chosen through an internal – and, for many Americans, largely opaque – process.

Yet congressional leaders play a critical role in setting legislative agendas, wrangling votes, and communicating party priorities to the public.

The House has three main leadership roles: speaker, majority leader, and minority leader. The Senate has majority and minority leaders. In both chambers, the majority and minority whips also play an important, albeit secondary, role.

Why We Wrote This

American voters elect members of Congress, but House and Senate members choose their leaders. Understanding leadership roles and their powerful influence is part of informed citizenship.

What do congressional leaders actually do?

The speaker of the House – currently Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California – is the most powerful member of that chamber, controlling everything from what legislation makes it onto the House floor for consideration to who sits on what committee. The speaker is also second in line of succession for the presidency, after the vice president.

The majority leader, the speaker’s right hand, tracks the maneuvering of the minority party and handles the day-to-day details of floor proceedings.



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