Legislative leadership is key to the organization and deliberations of the General Assembly and focused on three key positions, all of which are mentioned in the Vermont Constitution: the Speaker of the House, the Senate President Pro Tempore and the Lieutenant Governor (who serves as President of the Senate).
The speaker of the house is mentioned in Chapter II, Sections 14 and 16; the lieutenant governor’s role of presiding over the senate is in Chapter II, Section 19; and the president pro tempore is also mentioned in Chapter II, Section 19. Specific authorities are largely set out in the rules of the house and senate.
The speaker appoints committees and committee chairs (House Rules 17 and 26) and assigns bills to committees (House Rule 44). The speaker first gained exclusive authority to appoint committees in 1803, though there have been periodic attempts to curtail that authority (see the 1975 Journal of the House, page 317 for example).
The speakership was once subject to the mountain rule, an informal political mechanism that rotated certain offices east and west of the Green Mountains. Speakers serving multiple, consecutive terms are largely a post-1960s phenomenon. One reason was that the speakership was, at various times, seen as a stepping stone to the courts or to Congress, or from the 1930s to 1960 as part of an apprenticeship ladder gubernatorial aspirants had to climb.
The Vermont senate was created by an 1836 constitutional amendment, with the lieutenant governor designated as the presiding officer. As a member of the executive, not legislative, branch the president of the senate did not have the same powers as the speaker. In his opening address to the first senate Lieutenant Governor David Camp argued that, “It seems very obvious that a body, which does not choose its presiding officer, cannot with propriety assign him the power of appointing its committees and officers.”
Camp’s recommendation was adopted as Rule 17 (1836), which governed committee appointments: “...the Senate will proceed to ballot severally to appoint the chairman of each committee, and then by one ballot the other members necessary to complete the same.” To be elected chair required a majority vote, while committee membership required a plurality.
In 1861 the senate rules were amended to allow the president to nominate and the senate to approve committee members. Eleven years later the rules were amended to read the "Senate shall appoint" members to the standing committees.
In 1884 the senate rules were amended to provide for the election of a senate pro tempore, at the beginning of the session, to serve in the absence of the president. Prior to 1884 presidents pro tem were elected only as needed and it was possible for more than one president pro tem to be elected during a single session.
In 1906 the rules were changed so the “President of the Senate, the President pro tempore, and one Senator to be elected by the Senate shall...appoint” the standing committees. This appointing body is known as the committee on committees. A further change, adopted in 1917, made the committee nominating process a separate rule from the one enumerating standing committees.
The president pro tempore and the committee on committees can currently be found in Senate Rules 4, 6, 8, and 17.