In an unprecedented turn of events, the House of Representatives has witnessed the first ousting of its Speaker. Political pundits and historians alike have struggled to make sense of the event and the questions it raises. But one thing so far is clear: the perpetual threat of a motion to vacate and the weakening of party leadership have weakened Congress, not strengthened it. The time has come to consider whether a stronger Speaker would better serve Congress. Such a Speaker would make Congress more accountable to the people, not less.

Those who sympathize with the House’s Freedom Caucus might object that power in the House is excessively centralized and that the Speaker’s dominance has turned it into a top-down, polarized institution. But recent events have proven that the opposite is true—and that what we need is not less but more power in the hands of the Speaker.

When the motion was last used in 1910 against “czar” Speaker Joseph Cannon, the Republican Party was internally divided, much like today. The key difference lay in the fact that, at the time, the Democratic Party was no more progressive than its Republican counterpart. The key division was between progressives and conservatives within the Republican Party itself. Progressive Republicans believed that political parties were inherently corrupt and undemocratic. Like many Freedom Caucus members, they thought our laws were largely the product of interest groups using their influence to control the government. But the power of political parties a century ago ensured that a small minority could never dream of taking over an entire party.

It’s not hard to see why: The power held by political parties in 1910 is unimaginable today. The Speaker today can determine the House’s agenda but does not have the power to influence members of the House to vote for it. Cannon’s era, by contrast, was marked by a Speaker who wielded much greater authority. This authority rested on three pillars: the right of recognition, the power to select committee chairs and members, and control over the Rules Committee. These powers granted the Speaker the authority to regulate which bills made it to the floor, decide who got to speak on those bills, and set the rules for debating them. Speakers often wielded these powers to advance their party’s agenda and ensure the majority party could enact the voters’ mandate in Congress. They also wielded them to sideline progressives from the policy-making process. A conservative Cannon consistently suppressed the progressives’ influence in his own party.


This only changed when George Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska, introduced a resolution to strip the Speaker of control over the Rules Committee, marking a critical turning point in the Speaker’s power. On Saint Patrick’s Day, 1910, while many of Cannon’s loyalists were partying, Norris saw his opening and brought forth his resolution.

The debate over the Norris resolution raged for almost three days. Norris and his allies appealed to the entire House, and Cannon got overruled, 182 to 163. Norris’ resolutions passed, and the Speaker lost his power to make committee assignments and was removed from the Rules Committee.


The fallout was massive: Power in the House shifted dramatically, giving individual members the freedom to act independently from their party’s agenda and boosting their ability to block legislation. This also opened numerous avenues for lobbyists and interest groups to influence lawmaking. Amid this chaos, leadership had to emerge from somewhere, and it was the administrative power, and the President stepped up to seize control of the House’s agenda-setting process. 

So, why should we care about the Speaker’s power? Because the American Congress is fragmented and gridlocked, it isn’t easy to assemble a majority coalition and persuade members to support a common agenda under this system. The recurring theme of Republican Speakers’ tenures ending due to an inability to control the Freedom Caucus is a striking case. Freedom Caucus members rightly fear an unresponsive government that pursues narrow interests over the nation’s welfare. But history proves that parties are vital for restraining government, scrutinizing the executive, and executing the majority’s will. A feeble Speaker achieves none of these crucial objectives.

However, any serious proposal to strengthen the Speaker requires thinking about more fundamental reforms to our parties that must occur in conjunction with strengthening the Speaker. The main reason that Speakers were “czars” in the late 1800s and early 1900s is that parties were strong outside of Congress. They controlled their candidates’ nominations through conventions, relied on extensive patronage and financing to build loyal followings at the local and state levels, and worked internally to overcome their minor differences in order to collaborate on matters of primary importance. 

In other words, the real reason that Speakers are weak these days is because the underlying parties are weak. Parties need to be rebuilt from the ground up. They are “hollow,” as Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld argue, disconnected from the voters who provide them with their chief means of support. Until that deeper structural problem is addressed, any solution inside Congress itself will be insufficient.

Addressing that deeper structural problem is critical because, as political scientists have long understood, America’s political system cannot function effectively without a strong two-party system. It needs strong leaders who can build, maintain, and lead coalitions. Such leaders could enable Congress to regain power from the executive branch, build consensus on policies that the people broadly support, and work across the aisle to forge compromise.

Some might respond that strengthening the parties would bring back the corruption we associate with the Gilded Age. The problem with this objection is that weakening the parties has not led to less corruption in American politics today. It has, however, made corruption and government as a whole less accountable to the people.

Paradoxically, Americans tend to think that parties are the problem: the causes of polarization, political conflict, and dysfunction. In reality, the parties are the best solution to these issues if they can be rebuilt as great organizations that build broad coalitions and enact moderate and responsible reforms in response to elections.