The Speakership -- An Introduction


Click here for a list of the Speakers of the Rhode Island House of Representatives from 1696 to the present and here for short biographies of individual Speakers.

The office of Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives is one of the very few specifically prescribed constitutional offices and the only one for the legislative branch. The House Speaker is elected by vote of all of his or her fellow Representatives to serve for the same term for which all House members have been elected by the voters.

The Speaker wears a number of hats. Perhaps most obviously he presides over the sessions of the House, maintains order, makes parliamentary rulings, and is responsible for the general conduct of business.

In addition, the Speaker is the chief administrative officer of the House and plays a central role in the administration of the General Assembly. This is accomplished by the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which is composed of the House and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders with the Speaker as chairman. Much of the staff of the legislature is under the direct supervision of the Speaker.

The Speaker also plays a major role in managing the substantive business of the House and thus of the Assembly. This includes negotiating with the Governor and other legislative leaders the broad outlines of the annual State Budget. It also involves, from time to time, taking the initiative with the other leaders in crafting major legislation to deal with pressing issues and problems. The Speaker wields considerable influence over the general flow of legislation during each annual legislative session.

Closely related to these functions, is the fact that the Speaker is the leader of his party in the House, a role which he shares with the House Majority Leader. This entails concern for the legislative record of the party during the session, helping individual party members gain their legislative objectives, and as each biennial election approaches, providing assistance where possible to party candidates for election or re-election.

It should also be noted that the Speaker is the guardian of the constitutional role and prestige of the House in the Assembly, in the state government overall, and of the image of the House as perceived by the general public. Clearly the Speaker has a "public relations" responsibility and this obviously relates directly or indirectly to the other roles already mentioned. In short, the Speakership is a critically important position with a wide range of responsibilities. It is often correct to view the House Speaker as the most important elected state official second only to the Governor.

Under the Royal Charter of 1663, the representatives of the various towns were elected every six months. With the adoption of the Constitution in 1842 the term for both House and Senate members became one year. Until 1696, the state had a one house legislative body made up of the town delegates plus the Governor, Deputy Governor and the ten Assistants. From that date on the Assistants met separately as the Senate, and the House chose a Speaker to preside over its deliberations. The line of successive speakers thus runs from 1696 to date.

It was not until 1911 that the voters of the state ratified a constitutional amendment granting two-year terms to the General Officers and to the members of the General Assembly. In 1992 the voters approved another amendment giving four-year terms to the General Officers starting in 1994. However, the two-year term for the Assembly members remained the same.

In the history of the General Assembly, there is an interesting pattern as to length of Speaker incumbency. Very rarely did an individual serve more than two consecutive terms, which of course for most of the stateís history meant a total of two years. Once the two-year legislative term took effect, there were occasional four-year spans of service, but two years was more common.

On the other hand it was quite common for a Speaker who had served to be elected again for subsequent non-consecutive terms. For brief periods two individuals might alternate terms in office. This was particularly true during the 18th Century, but began to taper off during the 19th Century. From the 1870s on there were non-consecutive terms. One can only assume that this pattern of frequent change in the occupancy of the office meant a disinclination to allow any single individual to build up the influence and power that a longer incumbency would certainly have brought in its wake.

The introduction of two-year terms in 1911 did not substantially alter the pattern. Two Speakers did serve four years each, and then the pattern began to change with Roy Rawlings who served six years from 1927 to 1933). The dam of the short-term tradition really broke with Harry Curvin who was Speaker continuously for twenty-three years starting in 1941. Longer tenures followed though none approached Curvinís. John A. Bevilacqua served from 1969 to 1976 and Matthew J. Smith Smith held the office form 1980 to 1988 and Speaker John B. Harwood held the office from 1993 to 2002. The current Speaker William Murphy was first elected in 2003. The record of the period from the "Bloodless Revolution" of Theodore Francis Green in 1935 to the present makes it clear that a lengthy Speaker tenure and the growing power of the office go hand in hand.

A final point about the Speakership is the role that it has played as a major step on the road to other state offices. One hundred and forty-one individuals have served as Speaker of the House. Of these, 52 went on to other state offices after serving in the House. A number of the 52 held more than one additional state office. A count of the offices they filled yields a total of 67. That is, each different office held by a former Speaker whether for one or more terms, counted as one office in this tabulation. (For example, Nelson W. Aldrich served briefly in the U.S. House, but for thirty years in the U.S. Senate.)

The range of offices into which former Speakers moved runs the gamut of those available. In the order of frequency, 17 former Speakers went on to the U.S. House, 16 to serve as Deputy or Lieutenant Governor, 11 as Chief Justice, nine as Governor, six as U.S. Senator, five as Attorney General, two as General Treasurer and one as Secretary of State. During the 20th Century, and especially since the 1930s, the number of Speakers who went on to other offices sharply declined. With the sole exception of Speaker Bevilacqua, the Speakership has become a terminal elective office.



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