The term “ex officio” comes from the Latin phrase “from the office,” and in politics it refers to someone who is part of a political body just by virtue of holding a different elected office.
The most common example of an “ex officio” member of a body is the Vice President of the United States, who is considered the President of the Senate and can cast tie-breaking votes, despite never actually being elected to the Senate.
Further examples of “ex officio” members in the United States government are the chairmen and ranking minority members of U.S. Senate committees. These members are able to participate in any of the subcommittees, though they can’t vote.
In 2017, the New York Times noted the presence of Senators McCain and Reed during the highly charged testimony of James Comey in 2017: “Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, also questioned Mr. Comey on Thursday. As the leaders of the Armed Services Committee, they are “ex officio” members of the Intelligence Committee, as are the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer.
The use of the term “ex officio” dates back to the Roman empire, when various councils existed to debate issues and legislative matters, often with a large number of people who held other offices but were involved in the political processes of Roman leadership. Examples of ex-officio members are common in the structure and set up of many different organizations. In the case of non-profits, most CEOs are also “ex officio” members of the board, and in local politics, elected officials can be ex officio sheriffs, ex officio tax collectors, and ex officio members of committees. In New York City, the speaker of the council and the leaders from each party, are all ex officio members of all the city’s various committees.
In certain cases, the term “ex officio” is used interchangeably with “acting,” as when Baltimore mayor was forced to resign in 2019, and city council president Jack Young became acting, or ex-officio, mayor of the city.
In other countries around the world, many ex officio members play a large role in government. In the U.K., for example, the most senior bishops of the Church of England are ex officio members of the House of Lords, and have equal vote, prompting one website to query: “Why are there Bishops in the House of Lords?”