The Speaker of the House of Commons
I recently returned from a trip to London and paid my respects at Parliament’s Gift Shop. Among other things, I bought an excellent book on the practices and procedures of the House of Commons. I was unaware at how powerful the Speaker is in determining how debates are structured and how legislation is considered. The Speaker is an MP who is elected by the House, but after taking that position he or she leaves partisan politics and becomes a neutral arbiter (and thereafter runs for reelection as “the Speaker.”) While the Prime Minister controls the substantive agenda of Parliament, the Speaker has a significant role on procedural matters and does make rulings that make life difficult for the Government.
The comparison to Congress is instructive. There are lots of reasons why Congress could be dysfunctional, but one is that there is no separation between the substantive and procedural power in the House of Representatives (this is true to a lesser extent in the Senate because any given Senator can gum up the works.) In other words, the House Rules Committee just does whatever the Leadership wants. Arguably, this contributes to the climate of bad feelings in the House. It wasn’t always this way, of course. During the era of powerful committee chairmen, the Chair of the Rules Committee could set his own agenda. And maybe that was better.