Last week I attended the retirement reception for the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. The Honorable William Howell of Stafford is retiring after 30 years in the House with 14 years as Speaker. His tenure is the second longest in the modern period. The Republican majority in the House wasted no time in picking his successor who was known during the last session as the “Speaker designee.”
Speaker Howell was the 54th Speaker of the House; Edmund Pendleton was the first serving for one year in 1776. The predecessor to the House of Delegates, the House of Burgesses, under the Royal Colony of Virginia had speakers as well. The role of the speaker is to allow for orderly debate by requiring all speaking to go through the speaker—hence the name. Under today’s rules as in the past, members must be recognized by the speaker to request to speak or to ask a question and must receive permission to speak. No debate is allowed among members without going through the speaker. While it may sound cumbersome, it actually works to keep debate orderly and to prevent the chaos that could result from members shouting at each other directly.
The role of the Speaker has evolved over the years. Far from just directing debate, the speaker has tremendous other powers. For example, the speaker appoints the members of committees, assigns bills to committees and renders opinions on enforcing rules and parliamentary procedures.
Up until 1950 there had been 48 persons who had served as Speaker of the House for an average of 3.5 years each. Since 1950 there have been six speakers serving an average of eleven years each. One speaker during that period left office after two years because of a sex scandal. If he is not considered, the remaining speakers have served for an average of 13 years.
I served under the last five speakers. My observation on the office of the speaker is that it has become increasingly partisan. That is not too surprising if you consider that the office went from being held by Democrats to being held by Republicans during that time. In 1950 Del. E. Blackburn Moore of Frederick County who was a leading lieutenant in the Byrd Machine became speaker and served in that role for 18 years. He ruled with an iron fist. Many of the stories that are still told about abusing the role of speaker come from his era when he refused to put Republicans on committees that met. The House was referred to as “Blackie’s House” borrowing the name of a popular restaurant of the time.
His successor was the Gentleman from Mathews, the Honorable John Warren Cooke, who was the first speaker under whom I served. He was a sharp contrast to Moore and treated all members alike regardless of political party. Since his service, the office has been held by a series of nice individuals of both parties who have expanded the role to be in practice – if not name – the majority leader of the House.
With the change in individuals holding the role of speaker and with the potential change in the near future of the political party controlling the House, it is too bad that there cannot be a discussion of elevating the role of speaker to be the leader of the House and not the leader of the majority party. This kind of thing is not political nature for sure, but it would be the right thing to do and would change the outcomes of legislative sessions.