The Speaker of the House of Commons

73px-Henry_Brand,_1st_Viscount_HampdenI recently returned from a trip to London and paid my respects at Parliament’s Gift Shop.  Among other things, I bought an excellent book on the practices and procedures of the House of Commons.  I was unaware at how powerful the Speaker is in determining how debates are structured and how legislation is considered.  The Speaker is an MP who is elected by the House, but after taking that position he or she leaves partisan politics and becomes a neutral arbiter (and thereafter runs for reelection as “the Speaker.”)  While the Prime Minister controls the substantive agenda of Parliament, the Speaker has a significant role on procedural matters and does make rulings that make life difficult for the Government.

The comparison to Congress is instructive.  There are lots of reasons why Congress could be dysfunctional, but one is that there is no separation between the substantive and procedural power in the House of Representatives (this is true to a lesser extent in the Senate because any given Senator can gum up the works.)  In other words, the House Rules Committee just does whatever the Leadership wants.  Arguably, this contributes to the climate of bad feelings in the House.  It wasn’t always this way, of course.  During the era of powerful committee chairmen, the Chair of the Rules Committee could set his own agenda.  And maybe that was better.

 

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4 Responses

  1. mls says:

    you should read Parliament and Congress by Charles Johnson (former House Parliamentarian) and William McKay (former Clerk of the House of Commons), which comprehensively describes and compares the structure and process of the two bodies.

    What was the book you bought?

  2. Gerard Magliocca says:

    “How Parliament Works” I saw the book you mentioned, but will have to get it from the library.

  3. Ken Rhodes says:

    “The Speaker is an MP who is elected by the House, but after taking that position he or she leaves partisan politics and becomes a neutral arbiter.”

    Here’s a thought experiment: Try to imagine John Boehner elected Speaker, then leaving partisan politics and becoming a neutral arbiter.

  4. Ken Rhodes says:

    Brett, this is for you. I thought of Boehner for my example because he’s the one we’ve got now, but I know full well it works both ways:

    “Try to imagine …”, I wrote; “… or Nancy Pelosi, before him,” I should have written.