Intro to Congress: Speakers, Leaders and Whips

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Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill elected their new leaders this past week. But what, exactly, do the House speaker, the majority and minorities leaders, and the whips do? Alison Keyes gives us a lesson.


While President Bush was away in East Asia, congressional leaders were doing what they are wont to do on Sundays: appearing on the TV talk shows. Since last week's party contests on Capitol Hill, we've been wondering what exactly is in the job descriptions of the congressional leaders.

We sent NPR's Alison Keyes for some answers.

ALISON KEYES: A lot of kids in this country got their first taste of politics from those cool Schoolhouse Rock cartoons.

(Soundbite of "Schoolhouse Rock")

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill.

KEYES: So in the wake of all the hoopla over the new congressional leadership, we asked Columbia University professor David Epstein to help NPR explain just what these people do.

So professor, Nancy Pelosi will be the speaker of the House. What's her actual job?

Professor DAVID EPSTEIN (Columbia University): They set the general strategy. They figure out which issues are important to the party. They are in communication with the Senate, the White House and the other House members to try to see what kinds of compromises they can put together and try to explain to the other parties what it is that the House wants to get accomplished.

KEYES: Epstein says the incoming House majority leader, Maryland's Steny Hoyer, is the quarterback.

(Soundbite of football game)

Prof. EPSTEIN: They're the ones who are supposed to take orders from the speaker. They're the floor general for the party, so they're supposed to be there watching and making sure parliamentary tactics are carried through correctly. They're supposed to keep an eye on the minority party to ensure things don't get too far out of line. And they're supposed to be in close contact with their members of the party to see how they feel about the issues.

KEYES: Then there's an incoming House majority whip, South Carolina's James Clyburn.

Prof. EPSTEIN: They, along with the majority leader, then try to get a feeling for what they can do and what they can't do, what legislative initiatives will fly and which they're going to have to compromise more on.

KEYES: Frankly, the term whip has always made we want to giggle, because I always imagine somebody basically walking around slapping the legislators around to get them into line.

(Soundbite of cartoon boing sound)

Prof. EPSTEIN: That was originally the hope, was that they were the ones who were going to whip people into line. There are times when they feel more whipped, I guess, when the members are so out of line that there's essentially chaos and they're not able to keep their members in step with what the party wants them to do.

KEYES: Moving on to the incoming minority leader, Ohio's John Boehner, what's his job?

Prof. EPSTEIN: Minority leader is the leader of the loyal opposition. They are to keep their party in line. These days it usually means making themselves opposed to whatever it is the majority wants to do and trying to keep some order in their message. And other times it might mean cooperating with the majority on bills that are of joint interest.

KEYES: Epstein says the new House minority whip, Roy Blunt, will have the same job as a majority whip: counting votes and discerning which way members are leaning.

Over in the Senate, he says incoming majority leader Harry Reid's job will be similar to Pelosi's, but that chamber has to work a bit harder at getting along because of the filibuster rule.

Prof. EPSTEIN: A filibuster is a tactic by which you can hold up legislation in the Senate unless 60 votes on the other side say we want to cut off debate and take a vote.

KEYES: Epstein says his wife tried to think up a new song for all of this but it fell sort of flat.

Prof. EPSTEIN: It was something about Nancy Pelosi and coalition from the wings, you can do marvelous, marvelous things. She had a better line on it.

KEYES: Alison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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