Everyone knows the job description of the President of the United States: Commander-in-Chief; Leader of the Free World; Chief Executive; nominates Cabinet officials, Supreme Court justices and federal judges; executes the laws passed by Congress; initiates major domestic legislation, treaties and trade agreements; can veto legislation approved by Congress; etc., etc.

But what about the “Speaker” of the House of Representatives? What does he or she do? The House on October 29 elected a new Speaker—Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). At age 45 he is the youngest speaker elected since 1869.  

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New Speaker of the House: Why It Matters to HR

Tue Nov 17, 2015

Everyone knows the job description of the President of the United States: Commander-in-Chief; Leader of the Free World; Chief Executive; nominates Cabinet officials, Supreme Court justices and federal judges; executes the laws passed by Congress; initiates major domestic legislation, treaties and trade agreements; can veto legislation approved by Congress; etc., etc.

But what about the “Speaker” of the House of Representatives? What does he or she do? The House on October 29 elected a new Speaker—Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). At age 45 he is the youngest speaker elected since 1869.

First the puzzling title: it was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution in 1789—“The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker…” According to the website of the British Parliament the title dates back to 1377, when one of the members was authorized to “speak” to the King on behalf of the House of Commons.

Fast forward to the present and the Speaker of the House is arguably the second most powerful person in Washington DC. As leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives, the Speaker controls the flow of legislation to the floor of the House, including the scheduling of debate and votes.

Put another way, no piece of legislation comes before the full House of Representatives for debate and votes without the approval of the Speaker. If the Speaker decides that a measure is not ready for consideration it simply will not come up for a vote.

Speaker Ryan demonstrated this extraordinary power shortly after his election when he announced that the House would consider neither comprehensive immigration legislation nor a bill to require employers to offer paid sick leave— two of the President’s legislative priorities that are of great interest to HR professionals.

About immigration legislation the new Speaker declared on NBC’s Meet the Press, “The president has proven himself untrustworthy on this issue, because he tried to unilaterally rewrite the law himself. Presidents don't write laws. Congress does.” In other words, immigration reform legislation that would confer legal status on some 10 million undocumented aliens will not be voted by Congress before 2017.

On mandatory paid family medical leave, Speaker Ryan called the legislation another “federal entitlement.” And further, “I don’t think people asked me to be Speaker so I can take more money from hard-working taxpayers, so I can create some new federal entitlement.”

Translation: legislation to mandate that employers offer full-time and part-time employees a minimum number of days of paid leave will not be considered in the 2015-2016 congressional term.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean these initiatives are permanently off the table.  Under other circumstances, perhaps in 2017, new policy approaches to one or both issues may attract bipartisan support.

In making these two decisions, Speaker Ryan has shown that while he (like Rep Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) when Democrats were the majority party) does not have the power to make legislation happen—that requires the President, House and Senate to agree—the Speaker does have the power to stop legislation. And in Washington D.C. that’s a force to be reckoned with.