The Dirty Dozen: Ranking the Top 13 Speakers of the House of Representatives

These are the men, and woman, who had the unenviable job of trying to wrangle a horde of politicians into a body politic that could actually function. Welcome to FTKC, and today we are counting down our picks for the dirty dozen Speakers of the House. For this list we are including the men and woman who, for good or bad, used their influence and power to manage the House of Representatives.

# 13 Frederick Muhlenberg (1789-1791, 1793-1795)

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No list would be complete without the first. Frederick Muhlenberg served as the first and third Speaker. His Speakership oversaw the passage of the Jay Treaty and the smooth transition of government from a Confederated States to a federal union. Two legends are also attributed to Mr. Muhlenberg. The first is the Muhlenberg Legend which says that by a vote of 42-41 with Muhlenberg casting the deciding vote German just missed becoming an official language of the United States. The second legend is that it is because of Mr. Muhlenberg that we call the President by the title “Mr. President” rather than “His Elected Majesty” as John Adams had suggested.

#12 Nancy Pelosi (2007-2011)

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The first woman Speaker. The first Speaker from California. The first Italian-American Speaker. But these are not the reasons that Mrs. Pelosi makes our list. Like her or not, Mrs. Pelosi was able to draw in her rank and file party members and get things done. The first on her agenda was her 100-Hour plan, a six-day whirlwind legislative extravaganza which saw five bills make their way through the House, on to the Senate, and finally signed by President Bush (three bills died in the Senate). As Speaker, Pelosi was instrumental in organizing the Democratic caucus and pushing through President Obama’s health care plan despite not having a filibuster proof majority in the House.

#11 Thomas “Tom” Foley (1989-1995)

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Nothing is certain except death and taxes. And for Tom Foley, one of those was the hallmark of his tenure as Speaker. As a part of the 1990 deficit reduction deal, Mr. Foley successfully forced President Bush to accept tax increases, and then again, when Bill Clinton was elected Foley worked with the new President to get his 1993 budget plan passed 218-216 without a single Republican vote. He went against the majority of his Democrat Party when he sided with President Clinton on ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Despite all this, by most measures, Foley ran a House that was more civil than any Speaker after him and won praise from many Republicans for his fairness.

#10 Dennis Hastert (1999-2007)

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Like Pete Rose, Dennis Hastert’s legacy will be forever linked to a scandal. Namely, his indictment and conviction in a hush money cash case. But to deny either acceptance to a ranking of influential members of their respective professions is to deny their body of work. For Hastert, that body of work is lengthy befitting his nearly ten years serving as Speaker. He played a key role in the impeachment of Bill Clinton, but he also worked side by side with Clinton on significant policies like New Markets Tax Credit program and Plan Colombia. He oversaw the implementation of significant Bush policies like No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, and the creation of Medicare Part D. However, Hastert will be remembered most for his use of the “majority of the majority” rule–later termed the Hastert Rule–in which only bills supported by the majority of Republicans (the party in power at the time) could come to the House floor for a vote.

#9 James Polk (1835-1839)

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Jeopardy time: Presidents for $500–This is the only person to have served the Speaker of the House of Representatives and as President of the United States. Who is James K. Polk? Nicknamed “Young Hickory” because he defended every policy of President Andrew Jackson (Old Hickory), Polk’s brief four years as Speaker were filled with tumult. He led the House through the bitter battle over rechartering the Second Bank of the United States, and because of his relationship with Jackson all of Jackson’s enemies in Congress became Polk’s. Congressman John Bell, once Jackson’s ally, worked tirelessly to undermine Polk’s authority with obscure parliamentary challenges and questioning every decision Polk made. However, Polk was a shrewd tactician and knew the rules of debate like the back of his hand so he was only overruled once. So his enemies turned to the issue of slavery to cause disorder. They proposed a bill to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia. A raucous debate ensued leading Polk to push any bills on slavery into a special committee stacked in his favor to ensure that no slavery bill would make it to the House floor.

#8 Nicholas Longworth (1925-1931)

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In an ironic twist of politics, Nicholas Longworth was instrumental in both the demolition of a powerful Speaker (#4 on our list) and his stranglehold over the House, and the re-institution of those same powers. To prove his dominance over the left leaning Progressive Republicans in his House, Longworth stripped them all of their seniority, even the ones who sat as chairs of various committees. He commandeered the reins of both the Steering Committee and the Committee on Committees (the committee in each party that places members on… well, committees). He also put his own men on the Rules Committee ensuring that only bills he wanted to come to the floor would be debated. He did not completely alienate the Democrats in the House, either. He drew in the minority leader John Nance Garner and between the two of them they were able to maintain a smooth House. Plus, he’s got a House Office building named after him. Not bad.

#7 Tip O’Neill (1977-1987)

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Tip O’Neill was one of the last old-fashioned, staunch liberals that even many of his peers tried to steer away from resembling, and he relished every moment of it. He battled Democrats and Republicans alike especially Presidents Carter and Reagan who each waged a personal war against the entrenched political insiders and they considered O’Neill the penultimate insider. O’Neill believed in rewarding Democrats for party loyalty while Carter tried to reduce government spending. Reagan and O’Neill differed on their opinions about government: Reagan saying that government was the problem that prevented economic and social growth while O’Neill believed that government was the solution to all social problems. O’Neill used his power to name committee members to his advantage in numerous House votes. Once, when 44 Democrats voted against the party O’Neill wrote each and every one of them reminding them that he was “extremely disappointed” with them and that “disciplinary measures” were in consideration. One of O’Neill’s greatest achievements as Speaker was his role in the peace process of Northern Ireland from 1977-1985.

#6 Champ Clark (1911-1919)

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It is not often that a speech given by the Speaker of the House can influence the election in a foreign nation, but one given by Champ Clark did just that for Canada. In 1911, regarding a reciprocity treaty with Canada, Clark told the House that he looked “forward to the time when the American flag will fly over every square foot of British North America up to the North Pole.” The Canadian Conservative Party, who opposed the treaty, used Clark’s imperialism in their favor and handily won the election. As Democratic leader–prior to his Speakership–Clark was instrumental in leading a revolt against Speaker Joseph Cannon by manipulating the rifts forming in the Republican Party. As Speaker, Clark restored a responsible and responsive role of the Speaker. He used his power to muster Democrats against William H. Taft’s policies and in support of Woodrow Wilson’s. However, Clark did fight against President Wilson on two fronts: The Federal Reserve Bank and the entrance of the United States into World War I.

#5 John William McCormack (1962-1971)

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Nicknamed “The Archbishop”, John William McCormack was, according to a January 1962 Time magazine article, “the other man from Massachusetts.” McCormack shared more than just location in common with John F. Kennedy. They were both Catholic firsts–President and Speaker. His nine years as Speaker found him overseeing the Great Society Congress where he championed civil rights legislation, voting rights, and much of Lyndon Johnson’s social programs. His one vice, his unequivocal support for the Vietnam War. His term as Speaker was often marred by rancorous, young members of his own party who demanded better committee positions and felt that power in the party was concentrated in the hands of a few old white guys.

#4 Joseph Gurney Cannon (1903-1911)

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If at first you don’t succeed, try and try and try and try again. For Joseph Cannon, the fourth time at becoming Speaker of the House was a charm. Cannon saw himself as the protector of the intent of the Constitution which meant he needed to lead the House to check the powers of the Executive. In order to do this, “Uncle Joe”, as Cannon was called, used the enormous powers that had accumulated in the Speaker’s position during the 1890s to block Theodore Roosevelt at every turn despite both being Republicans. At his disposal were committees packed with old school Conservatives loyal to him and he blocked bills that he didn’t like from being voted on. And he didn’t like a lot of what the Progressive Republicans had to offer. He didn’t care about tainted food or child welfare, taking down monopolies or the men who controlled them, the banks or even nature. “Not one cent for scenery,” Cannon chided over a bill for forestry. True to the definition of “conservative” Uncle Joe detested changed. “I am goddamned tired of listening to all this babble for reform,” he said, “America is a hell of a success.” Uncle Joe was so powerful that even the “bully pulpit”, “Big Stick” Theodore Roosevelt had to work with and around Cannon to get his Progressive Agenda passed. With his power, Cannon could have been one of the most powerful men in Congress, passing bill after bill, but, instead, he used his power to maintain a status quo that he felt was best for America. That was until the Progressives were able to oust him from power in an ugly, public revolt.

#3 Thomas Brackett Reed (1889-1891, 1895-1899)

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If you think that Congress is an obstructionist, do-nothing building packed with bloviating narcissists you might just be right, but you haven’t seen the worst of it. To do that you’d need to go back in time to the late 19th Century. Then, the House was a smoking lounge for old, crotchety men who loafed around reading the newspaper and spitting chewing tobacco into spittoons. And they could. These men had manipulated the House (parliamentary) procedures to the point of stalemate. One in particular, the requirement set forth by the Constitution for a quorum to exist before the House could do any business, meant that nearly nothing of significance could get done in the House unless everyone was on board. So, nothing got done. To pull this off, the party in the minority, at the time the Democrats, used what was called the “disappearing quorum” where members who were present in the House chamber would just not answer to the roll call, thus, they weren’t there so no quorum. That all changed when Thomas Brackett Reed assumed the Speaker’s podium. With a simple command to the clerk ordering him to count all people present in chamber and with a note that they are refusing to vote Reed was able to make the disappearing quorum vanish. This became known as Reed’s Rules and it allowed him to quickly expand the role of government leading him to become known as Czar Reed. He pushed for expanded Civil Rights legislation for blacks and got the Lodge Fair Elections Bill pushed through the House. He also presided over the “billion dollar Congress” which passed more bills and appropriated more money than any other preceding peacetime Congress.

#2 Sam Rayburn (1940-1947, 1949-1953, 1955-1961)

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Serving just over seventeen years Sam Rayburn is the longest sitting Speaker of the House. He’d served Presidents FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy and was instrumental in the rise of a then Senator Lyndon Johnson to Vice President and eventually the Presidency. Unlike many of his predecessors, Rayburn ruled the House not by driving or forcing its members, but through reason and persuasion. To do this, he relied heavily on intimate relationships and the loyalties he cultivated in both parties. The first test of his leadership came in 1941, just four months before Pearl Harbor, when isolationists tried to block an extension on draft regulations. Rayburn championed Truman’s foreign policy and helped him get the Marshall Plan and other policies through the House. Domestically, he supported Truman’s Fair Deal and was instrumental in ushering through the Housing Act (1949) and Social Security changes. As an old guard Democrat from Texas, Rayburn stood against FDR and Truman’s civil rights proposals, however, Eisenhower’s plans were more palatable and he helped pass legislation in 1957 and again in 1960.

Honorable Mentions

Newt Gingrich (1995-1999)

Carl Albert (1971-1977)

Nathaniel Macon (1801-1807)

#1 Henry Clay (1811-1814, 1815-1820, 1823-1825) 

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“The Great Compromiser.” “The Great Pacificator.” Both nicknames for probably one of America’s greatest leaders, Henry Clay, who was so important to the development of the United States that upon his death in 1852 he was the first person to receive the honor of lying in state in the U.S. Capital rotunda. Clay took his seat in the House in 1811 and on the first day of the first session he was elected to the Speaker’s position, a feat never since repeated and only done once before during the very first House session in 1789. His magnetic personality drew men to him, but his ability to scheme and manipulate bills to his will earned him the animosity of many of the same men. Henry Clay transformed the Speaker’s role of mediator and rules enforcer into a position of incredible power second only to that of the president. He used that power to influence the United States into war with Britain in 1812 and then to sit as one of the negotiators at the peace process afterwards. Though a slave owner, he disapproved of the system and became the president of the American Colonization Society and advocated gradual emancipation. While Speaker, he fought for the independence movements of Latin American nations and in some nations became as popular as Simon Bolivar. He negotiated the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and fought, unsuccessfully, for the Five Civilized Tribes to maintain their lands. But the crowning achievement of Clay’s Speakership was his creation and implementation of his “American System“, an economic program that would eventually shape the economic and political policies of America. Henry Clay influenced so many of America’s future political leaders that he could be considered the father of American politicians. A young Abraham Lincoln noted that Clay was his “beau ideal of a statesman” and he would adopt much of Clay’s political ideological style.

Do you agree with the list? Which Speaker of the House do you think deserves to be #1? Comment below and let FTKC know what you think. Follow FTKC for more Dirty Dozen lists and other perspectives on society and history.

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One thought on “The Dirty Dozen: Ranking the Top 13 Speakers of the House of Representatives

  1. I would switch Rayburn and Clay around. I would not consider Gingrich or Albert worthy of honorable mention, nor would I consider Hastert in the top 12 either.

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