Updated April 02, 2013
While the excruciating battles of partisan politics slow the work of Congress - often to a crawl, the legislative process would probably cease to function at all without the efforts of the House and Senate majority and minority party leaders and whips. Often agents of contention, the congressional party leaders are, more importantly, agents of compromise.
Intent on separating politics from government, the Founding Fathers, after what was truly a "Great Compromise," established only a basic framework of the legislative branch in the Constitution. The only congressional leadership positions created in the Constitution are the Speaker of the House in Article I, Section 2, and the President of the Senate (the Vice President of the United States) in Article I, Section 3.
In Article I, the Constitution empowers the House and Senate to choose their "other Officers." Over the years, those officers have evolved into the party majority and minority leaders, and floor whips.
Majority and minority leaders are paid a slightly higher annual salary than rank-and-file members of the House and Senate. (See: Salaries and Benefits of US Congress Members)
As their title implies, the majority leaders represent the party holding the majority of seats in the House and Senate, while the minority leaders represent the opposing party. In the event each party holds 50 seats in the Senate, the party of the Vice President of the United States is considered the majority party.
The members of the majority party in both the House and Senate elect their majority leader at the start of each new Congress. The first House Majority Leader, Sereno Payne (R-New York), was elected in 1899. The first Senate Majority Leader, Charles Curtis (R-Kansas) was elected in 1925.
House Majority LeaderHouse and Senate Minority Leaders
The House majority leader is second only to the Speaker of the House in the hierarchy of the majority party. The majority leader, in consultation with the Speaker of the House, and party whips schedules bills for consideration by the full House and helps set the House's daily, weekly, and annual legislative agendas.
In the political arena, the majority leader works to advance the legislative goals of his or her party. The majority leader often meets with colleagues of both parties to urge them to support or defeat bills. Historically, the majority leader rarely leads House debates on major bills, but does occasionally serve as the national spokesman for his or her party.
Senate Majority Leader
The Senate majority leader works with the chairmen and ranking members of the various Senate committees to schedule consideration of bills on the floor of the Senate, and works to keep other Senators of his or her party advised of the upcoming legislative schedule. Consulting with the minority leader, the majority leader helps create special rules, called "unanimous consent agreements," which limit the amount of time for debate on specific bills. The majority leader also has the power to file for the supermajority cloture vote needed to end debate during a filibuster.
As the political leader of his or her party in the Senate, the majority leader has great power in crafting the contents of legislation sponsored by the majority party. For example, in March 2013, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada decided a measure banning the sale and possession of assault weapons would not be included in a comprehensive gun control bill sponsored by Senate Democrats on the behalf of the Obama administration.
The Senate majority leader also enjoys the right of "first recognition" on the Senate floor. When several senators are demanding to speak during debates on bills, the presiding officer will recognize the majority leader, allowing him or her to speak first. This allows the majority leader to offer amendments, introduce substitute bills and make motions before any other senator. Indeed, famed former Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-West Virginia), called the right of first recognition "the most potent weapon in the Majority Leader's arsenal."
Elected by their fellow party members at the start of each new Congress, the House and Senate minority leaders serve as the spokesmen and floor debate leaders of the minority party, also called the "loyal opposition." While many of the political leadership roles of the minority and majority leaders are similar, the minority leaders represent the policies and legislative agenda of the minority party and often serve as the national spokesmen for the minority party.
Majority and Minority Whips
Playing a purely political role, the majority and minority whips in both the House and Senate serve as the main channels of communication between the majority leaders and other party members. The whips and their deputy whips are responsible for marshalling support for bills supported by their party and making sure that any members who are "on the fence" vote for the party position. Whips will constantly count votes during debates on major bills and keep the majority leaders informed of the vote count.
According to the Senate Historical Office, the term "whip" comes from fox hunting. During the hunt, one or more hunters were assigned to keep the dogs from straying from the trail during the chase. Very descriptive of what the House and Senate whips spend their days in Congress doing.