Every two years, a new Congressional election cycle changes the makeup of the United States federal government, including Congressional leaders. Seats in the House of Representatives and Senate may switch parties, possibly flipping the chambers from one political party’s control to the next. Aside from a shift in control, the most impactful changes in Congress may happen in its party leadership.

Congressional leaders control which legislation comes to a vote and when, which members sit on certain committees, and the priorities of both major parties in Congress. They even influence how other members vote on major issues. Knowing who these leaders are and what they do is key to understanding who holds the power in Congress.

For example, on March 22, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) filed a motion to vacate the Speaker of the House position. The House of Representatives likely will not take a vote on the issue unless Greene calls for it. If that happens and a majority of representatives approve it, this would remove Mike Johnson as speaker. The House is currently on recess until April 9.

Key Positions: Congressional Leaders

There are many congressional leadership positions in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The most powerful are the Speaker of the House, majority and minority leaders, and whips. Of these, only the speaker is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. The rest have been established by the traditions and rules of the political parties. Each leadership position has a different set of responsibilities.

In a rare move, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-CA) was ousted as Speaker of the House in October of 2023. Photo credit: Maryland Daily Record.

Speaker of the House

The Speaker of the House is the presiding officer and spokesperson of the House of Representatives. The speaker maintains order on the House floor, applies House rules, decides on matters of order, and calls on members to speak. They work with other congressional leaders in the majority party to set the legislative agenda. Further, the speaker sends bills to committees and helps decide which ones come to the floor for debate and when. They may also negotiate with the opposing leader to gain minority party support for bills and budget resolutions. The speaker and House minority leader assign members to the Ethics, House Administration, and Rules committees, as well as all select committees.

While it is not a Constitutional requirement, every speaker in history has been a sitting representative. The House elects a new speaker every two years at the beginning of a new Congress. Each party’s caucus or conference decides on a candidate, and the parties put forward their choices for a vote. Repeated votes are held until one candidate receives a majority. While uncommon, representatives are free to vote for someone other than their party’s candidate. The speaker is almost always a member of the majority party.

Rarely, the House can elect a speaker in the middle of a congressional term if the position becomes vacant. The current Speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), was elected this way. The previous speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-CA), took the post in January 2023 after fifteen rounds of voting and disagreement among Republicans. McCarthy became the first speaker ever removed through a motion to vacate in October of that year. A handful of Republicans and all Democrats voted to remove him from his post. This kicked off four more rounds of roll-call voting that led to Johnson’s election. McCarthy later resigned from Congress effective December 31, 2023.

Majority Leader

Majority leaders represent and speak for the majority party in each chamber of Congress. When multiple senators or representatives want to speak on the floor, the presiding officer will call on the majority leader first. They help set the legislative agenda, schedule bills on the calendar, and make committee recommendations. As spokespersons for their party, they may also help promote policies and gain public favor for them.

This role works a bit differently in the House of Representatives than it does in the Senate. Traditionally, the House majority leader is the speaker’s second-in-command and will share some of the above duties with the speaker. The responsibilities of each position can change slightly with each new speaker and majority leader pair. The House majority leader in 2024 is Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA).

In the Senate, the majority leader is effectively the leader of the chamber. The U.S. Constitution names the Vice President as the Senate’s presiding officer, but they are rarely active in proceedings. Instead, the majority leader often presides over the chamber, performing duties similar to the Speaker of the House. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is the current Senate majority leader.

The Democratic Caucus and Republican Conference each choose new majority leaders, minority leaders, and whips before the start of a new Congress. Unlike the Speaker of the House, these positions do not need a floor vote.

Minority Leader

Minority leaders are the opposition leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate. As spokespersons for the minority party in each chamber, they represent their party’s members and interests. They have second priority to speak during floor debates, behind the majority leader. Depending on their party’s strategy, they may oppose the majority’s legislation or negotiate changes to a bill. If the President belongs to the same party, the minority leader often works with the White House toward the President’s legislative goals.

The minority leader also helps their party regain control of their chamber, often by giving campaign assistance. They criticize the majority’s policies and promote their own party’s agenda to the public.

Party leaders often keep their roles when control of a chamber switches, so a majority leader might become a minority leader. In the House of Representatives, the former Speaker of the House and the former majority leader may compete for the minority leader role.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) is the House minority leader in 2024. As Democratic party leader, he serves as chair of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. This group nominates party members for standing committee assignments and advises party leaders on policy. The current Senate minority leader is Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the longest-serving congressional leader in the Senate with a 17-year tenure as Republican party leader. He is chair of the Republican Steering Committee, which decides the party’s committee assignments.


Whips help their party leaders round up votes for legislation and support for their agenda. Both the majority and minority parties have them. The name comes from “whipper-in,” an old fox hunting term for hunters who kept dogs from straying from the chase.

In Congress, a whip’s job is to keep party members from straying from the party’s platform. They serve as communicators, negotiators, and enforcers of party discipline. They count the expected votes for important legislation and report feedback to their party leaders. If a piece of legislation needs more votes to pass, they work to persuade members to vote for it. Whips may negotiate changes to the bill or offer support for a different bill. The promise of a committee position, or the threat of losing one, can also change a member’s mind. In addition, whips inform party members about the current legislative agenda and the party’s positions on major issues.

Both parties may contain several congressional caucuses. Caucuses are subgroups which represent different interests and legislative goals. Sometimes, different caucuses conflict with each other. Whips aim to unite these different groups behind the party’s most important goals.

Whips may also be called “assistant majority leader,” “assistant minority leader,” “Democratic whip, or “Republican whip.” As of 2024, the current whips in Congress include:

Upcoming Changes to Congressional Leaders

At least some of the nation’s congressional leaders will change next year. In February 2024, Senator McConnell announced that he would step down from his position as Senate Minority Leader at the end of the year. Before the next Congress is seated in January 2025, the Senate Republican Conference will select a new leader.

One potential candidate for Republican Senate leader is Senator John Thune (R-SD), the current minority whip. He will need to step down as whip whether he is elected as the new leader or not. He has served three full two-year terms, which is the limit that Republicans set for their Senate leaders and committee chairs. The party leader is an exception to this rule, which is why McConnell was able to stay so long in his post.

The Speaker of the House position may also be contested at the start of 2024, if the last two speaker elections are any indication. Both took multiple rounds of voting before Republican representatives united behind a candidate.

Meanwhile, Democrats all supported Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) as speaker in both elections. If the majority party flips in the House of Representatives, Jeffries is the most likely candidate for speaker. Democrats would choose a new House majority leader, while Republicans would lose one of their leadership positions. A change in the majority of either the House or the Senate in 2025 would also shift that chamber’s legislative priorities.

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