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In the US Congress, there are leadership positions held in both majority and minority parties (e.g. the "majority leader" or "minority whip"). In practice, there are almost always two parties, so the "minority" party is simply the one that isn't the majority party. At present, this means either the Republican or Democrat party is the minority.

However, there are periods of time during which a third party grows in influence (typically leading to one of the two dominant parties dying off), and even at present there are a number of "independent" candidates associated with, e.g. the Libertarian, Green, etc. parties.

How do those third parties factor in to the "leader/whip" heirarchy? Is there a Libertarian party leader and whip in Congress, and do those positions grant any official responsibilities or benefits to the people that hold them?

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Each congress arm of congress agrees to the rules it will operate under at the start of the Congressional session. These rules define the leadership positions and their roles in the session. The GOP and DNC have been in control of congress for quite some time so there has been very little need, or desire, to change the structure of the congressional leadership positions so this has been a mostly perfunctory motion as far as the leadership rules adoption. There have been adjustments to other rules though.

In theory the Republicans and Democrats could band together to prevent any third party from having any leadership role despite that third party having a numerical advantage. Imagine a time where the GOP hold 30 Senate Seats, the DNC holds 31 seats and some third party holds the remaining 39 seats. That third party should logically be the majority party. However the other two parties have enough votes that they could force through rules that would prevent the third party from having any leadership abilities, or even any committee seats.

The reality is that this is unlikely to actually happen. First there would be considerable blowback from the people who elected those senators. Second most third parties have some loose alignment with one of the current dominant parties. This means that the third party is more likely to agree to rules that are favorable to the party they align with, so pragmatically its a bad choice. And third, the Supreme Court is liable to step in and rule that the rules are contrary to the constitution in that all elected officials are expected to have a role in the government.

  • So... the definition of "majority party" isn't spelled out in any particular laws or statutes as being the majority seat-holder; everyone just collectively agrees on which party gets that title before they start? – KutuluMike Jul 17 '14 at 17:26
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    No the rules are approved and codified at the start of each congressional session. With one parting having a majority the voting is pretty easy to figure out who is the majority party. – SoylentGray Jul 17 '14 at 18:09
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Currently, only 2 of the 535 members of Congress are not members of the two major parties:

  • Angus King (I-ME)
  • Bernard Sanders (I-VT)

Both are members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, so they're de facto Democrats for the purpose of choosing officers and committee assignments.

However, there are periods of time during which a third party grows in influence (typically leading to one of the two dominant parties dying off)

This is a very rare situation. We've had the same two dominant parties since 1856. After the Constitutional Union party fizzled out in the late 1860s, the only Congressionally-represented third parties of significance have been:

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