Guest Essayist: Amanda Hughes


Leadership roles in the United States House of Representatives and Senate help advance the purpose of Congress and why each member was elected – to serve.  Various positions bring in members who offer each Congress that convenes unique experience and abilities.

Development of leadership roles that would carry into the new, settled governing system was in the making in the years surrounding the first, second, and third Continental Congresses and into the first United States Congress.

Combined efforts throughout the 1700s held a number of the same men who crafted and/or signed one or more of our beginning or founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, United States Constitution, and later the Bill of Rights. The knowledge, strengths, and interests of these early leaders would create congressional governing positions still in use today.

The First United States Congress which met from 1789 to 1791 is considered the most important of all of the Congresses that have convened since then. The First Congress was entrusted with an arduous task of discussing and passing all legislation necessary to get the new system of American government running and with workable precedents. This included a need to select leadership roles among setting up rules and procedures of each chamber, or body, of the House and Senate.

Roles in Congress would develop with Representative James Madison who led the beginning Congress that would set up, for example, a revenue system, executive departments, take on state Revolutionary War debts, and decide on the future capital.

While at work setting up new roles for a new system, the first Congress moved to Philadelphia in 1789. Washington, D.C. would later become the settled, nation’s capital where the three branches of government would sit: the nation’s Capitol would be built for future Congresses to meet, the White House for United States presidents to reside, and home of the Supreme Court.

Each year Congress convenes in a series of meetings called a session. Congress holds two sessions per year. Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution states:

“The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.”

Later, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified to make the third day of January the meeting date unless Congress passes a law to appoint a different day. When the House or Senate is meeting on Capitol Hill, either is said to be “in session” each time one or both chambers meets though the two formal meetings per year, one of which must occur based on the constitutional mandate to meet at least once per year, are also called “sessions.”

The House begins a new Congress at noon on January 3 each odd-numbered year following a general election with a Congress lasting two years, and each year is one session. The Senate meets for a new “Congress” every two years, divided into two annual sessions, each beginning in January and ending in December. When the House and Senate meet together, it is called a joint session, and sometimes a joint meeting depending on the reason for meeting. Starting and ending on an odd year, as of 2018, the United States Congress has convened for 114 Congresses, is currently in the second session of its 115th Congress that began in 2017 and will conclude in 2019.

Prior to the first Congress in 1789 under the new system of government, along with election as the first United States President, George Washington, was selected as president of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. It was a role that would help spur the necessary precedents to maintain a stable, effective Congress for the long-term.

Since 1789, relatively few Americans, almost 11,000, have taken a role as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and/or Senate. The First Federal Congress convened in New York City’s Federal Hall March 4, 1789. They were able to begin proceedings finally in April because at first, they did not obtain a quorum to begin conducting business. Once enough members finally arrived from long, difficult travel, they were able to begin, including to elect a first Speaker, Representative Frederick Muhlenberg (R-PA). Currently, in the 115th Congress, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is serving as House Speaker.

Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution reads:

“The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers…”

The Speaker is the presiding officer over the House of Representatives in a political and parliamentary role. Though established from British parliamentary practice, Speakers have limited their positions to presiding over the House, among other duties, and serving as a ceremonial head. The Speaker is elected by a majority of the Representatives newly elected, and chosen by the majority and minority party caucuses, when a new Congress begins.

In case of a vacancy during a Congress, a majority of the House selects a new Speaker from candidates the two parties previously chose. The role of the House Speaker is part of our Constitution in Amendment 25 as a leader in line to the presidency, should the President of the United States prove disabled.

Since the Framers left the decision to Congress regarding which Officer would act as President should the Vice President be unable as first in line to the presidency, it was decided in 1791 to set the Secretary of State as next in line after the Vice President. The Vice President also serves as President of the Senate, with authority to vote in case of a tie on the Senate floor. John Adams served as the first Vice President along with duties as President of the Senate. Today, Mike Pence (R-IN) serves as Vice President and President of the Senate.

Some suggested the Chief Justice, House Speaker, or president pro tempore (meaning to serve for the time being, and in this case if the Vice President is unable) of the Senate which did serve in the succession capacity following the passage of the Presidential Succession Act of 1792. Differences in opinion over who should succeed the President and Vice President left considerable risk for upset of stability and balance of powers. In 1947, the law was changed to place the order of succession to make the Speaker in line after the Vice President, followed by the president pro tempore, then the Secretary of State and other cabinet members depending on the time each department was created. To this date, this system is still in use.

Amanda Hughes serves as Outreach Director, and 90 Day Study Director, for Constituting America. She is the author of Who Wants to Be Free? Make Sure You Do!, and a story contributor for the anthologies Loving Moments(2017), and Moments with Billy Graham(forthcoming).


“The First Federal Congress”

“Total Members of the House & State Representation”

“The Opening of the First Congress in New York City”

“House of Representatives Session Dates”

“Congress Profiles”

“The People of the People’s House”

“United States House of Representatives Leadership”

“President Pro Tempore”

“Presidential Succession”

“President of the Senate: Vice President of the United States”

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