On Thursday, February 18, a panel of current and former GU Politics Fellows gathered to discuss how to navigate the political and legislative battles of a divided Congress that past speakers have faced and what lies ahead for Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
The panel was moderated by Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief Jackie Kucinich (Spring ’16 GU Politics Fellow) and featured Mike Shields (Spring ‘23 GU Politics Fellow), Michael Ricci (Spring ‘23 GU Politics Fellow) and Ashley Etienne (Spring ‘22 GU Politics Fellow).
Together, the group of fellows represented five different speakerships and were able to speak firsthand to the qualities necessary for success as a speaker.
“To be an effective speaker, you have to communicate and explain, so that your caucus can understand the mission,” says Shields, emphasizing it is critical to understand the nuances of both the executive and legislative responsibilities to be successful in the role.
Etienne spoke to the importance of understanding the fundamentals of the position, noting Pelosi’s tenure as speaker was successful due much to her knowledge of the legislative process.
“When you master the fundamentals, you are the most powerful person in the room,” she says.
Ricci chimed in with his belief that a long serving and trustworthy staff is essential to maintaining a strong speakership. He also noted the speakership is a never ending job – one that requires a lot of travel and an abundance of energy both from the speaker themselves and their staff.
In regard to how the two parties approach the speakership, Shields offered his belief that Republicans are inherently against top down leadership which, in turn, can make a Republican speakership challenging. In contrast, he says, the Democrats are more institutionalists, contributing to more attainable unification of the party’s membership.
At the end of the discussion, the floor was opened to Georgetown students who were given the opportunity to ask questions and engage with the panelists – further inquiring about the role of the speaker but also asking about what it takes to staff the person third in line for the presidency.
One of the first questions asked was about how gender affected Speaker Pelosi’s approach to the role. Etienne responded saying it simply didn’t.
“The boys are afraid of me not because I am a woman, but because I am the most effective speaker that happens to wear pumps,” she recalls Pelosi saying.
Ricci, when asked about the challenges he has faced in the digital age, responded saying the challenges have compressed and increasingly fragmented media messaging for members in the Republican party.
“I used to have to think two or three steps ahead,” he says. “Now I have to think five or six steps ahead.”
In a divided Congress, the speaker always must be thinking about how to reach the 218 votes necessary to pass legislation. When the panel was asked about what strategies are best deployed to do so, Etienne emphases the importance of compromise.
“It was necessary to find compromise, because it is in the interest of every American to get things done,” she says.
When asked about the impact the panel had, one student, Isabelle Bennette (CAS ‘26), says she was challenged to think about the role of the speaker in new ways. “It gave me a new perspective on how speakers navigate a difficult and polarized landscape.”
This article was written by Anisa Nanavati (SFS ’26), a GU Politics student associate.