Committee on Rules
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Committee on Rules
The Committee on Rules has a long and storied history. Its mandate over “the rules and joint rules . . . and order of business of the House” took almost a century to establish.
In Congresses of the late twentieth century, the Rules Committee has consisted of thirteen members, nine from the majority party and four from the minority party. This heavy majority party ratio of 2 to 1, plus 1 reflects the Committee’s status since the mid-1970’s as an “arm of the leadership” and “legislative gatekeeper.” The Committee principally serves to assist the majority leadership in scheduling bills for floor action. Bills are scheduled by means of special rules from the Rules Committee that bestow upon legislation priority status for consideration in the House and establish procedures for their debate and amendment.
During its first century, however, the Rules Committee exercised a quite different and more limited role, that of recommending changes in the standing rules for the House. At other times, it has acted independently of House leadership. The evolution of the Rules Committee reflects the shifting dynamics between speakers, members of the House, committee chairs, and presidents.
Origin of the Committee
On April 2, 1789, the second day of the First Congress, the House voted to establish a select committee of eleven members “to prepare and report such standing rules and orders of proceedings as may be proper to be observed in the House.” This effectively was the first Committee on Rules. On April 7, the select committee reported back to the House a set of four rules that the House adopted. These rules dealt with the duties of the Speaker, decorum and debate, bill procedure, and procedures for the Committee of the Whole.
On April 13, the select committee reported eight additional rules, which the House adopted over the next two days, relating to committee service, leaves of absence, creation of a standing committee on elections, an oath of office for the clerk, and the appointment and duties of the sergeant at arms. With its final report, the first Rules Committee was dissolved but did not fade into history. In less than two weeks, the Committee had established a set of rules that would endure at the heart of House parliamentary practice for the next two centuries.
For ninety years, the Rules Committee remained a temporary select committee, appointed at the beginning of each Congress for the purpose of recommending changes from the rules of the previous Congress and then going out of existence. Its role was so minor that in five Congresses, it was not even established and in others it issued no reports.
There were hints during this period, though, of a larger role of the Rules Committee, that of reordering the House's legislative business. On June 16, 1841, the House adopted a resolution extending the rules of the previous Congress for the balance of the first session but also giving the Rules Committee “leave to report at all times,” rather than once, in the usual single report.
Less than a month later, on July 6, the Rules Committee took advantage of this authority by reporting an amendment to House rules that would permit the House by majority vote, rather than the two-thirds vote otherwise required, to terminate all debate in the Committee of the Whole and thereby bring a bill to a final vote back in the House. The Speaker overruled a point of order against this amendment on grounds that the June 16 resolution had given the Rules Committee authority to make “reports in part at different times, and by piecemeal.” The Speaker's ruling was upheld on appeal and the rule was subsequently adopted. A motion was immediately made under the authority of this rule to terminate all debate at 7:00 P.M. that day on a pending public lands bill that for several days had been subject to minority delaying tactics in the Committee of the Whole. The motion was agreed to by majority vote and all debate on amendments was terminated at 7:00 that evening (though the minority continued to offer scores of nondebatable amendments for several more hours before the measure was finally reported back to the House). For the first time, the Rules Committee had exercised its authority to intervene in the consideration of a specific bill.
Other images of the modern Rules Committee were revealed in the 31st and 32nd Congresses (1849-1853), when the House briefly elevated it to standing committee status and, in 1858, when the House created a special rules revision committee that included the Speaker as one of its members. A year later, the Speaker was made the chairman of the select committee on rules.
In 1880, when the House again undertook a comprehensive overhaul of House rules, it reduced the number of rules from 166 to 44, and designated as one of the forty-two House standing committees a Committee on Rules with jurisdiction over “all proposed action touching on the rules and the joint rules.” Moreover, the Speaker, then Rep. Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania, retained the authority to chair the newly-permanent Rules Committee and to appoint the chairmen and members of other standing and select committees.
The Reed Rules
Between 1880 and 1910, the Rules Committee emerged as the Speaker’s committee and the legislative scheduling agent for the House. Its first chairman, in 1880, Speaker Samuel J. Randall (D-PA), used his authority to bolster the influence of the speakership, establishing that all future rules changes should be referred to the Rules Committee and that its reports could be brought to the floor any time.
The powers of the Committee and the speakership continued under Republican control. One of the first Republican leaders to recognize the potential of the Rules Committee was Rep. Thomas B. Reed (R-ME). Appointed to the Rules Committee in January of 1882, Rep. Reed, then in his third term, assumed a leadership position by engineering rules changes and Speaker’s rulings designed to eliminate dilatory tactics used by the minority.
The most significant early example of this, and also the first recorded instance of a modern-day special rule reported by the Rules Committee, occurred on February 26,1833. Rep. Reed called up a resolution reported by the Rules Committee that would allow the House by majority vote, rather than by the two-thirds vote required under the suspension rule, to suspend the rules and request a conference with the Senate on a tariff bill.
Rep. Joseph C.S. Blackburn (D-KY) raised a point of order against the resolution on the grounds that the Rules Committee did not have authority to report the resolution because it was neither a rule nor an amendment to House rules. Speaker J. Warren Keifer (R-OH), Chairman of the Rules Committee, overruled the point of order on grounds that the resolution was “reported as a rule from the Committee on Rules.” The Speaker went on to explain that, just as the Rules Committee could report a rule to suspend or repeal every rule of the House, subject to approval by the House, it also could report a rule that “may apply to a single great and important measure now pending before the Congress.”
When Republicans again took over the House in the 51st Congress (1889-1891) after a six-year hiatus, Rep. Reed was elected Speaker and thus also became the Chairman of the Rules Committee. He immediately moved to rely on the Rules Committee to control legislative business on the floor through the use of special orders. Reed later would describe the role of the Rules Committee as a steering committee “to arrange the order of business and decide how and in what way certain measures shall be considered.”
Speaker Reed also moved swiftly to eliminate minority obstruction of floor business by issuing rulings from the chair that outlawed dilatory motions. He then directed the codification of his rulings from his position as Rules Committee Chairman. Known as the Reed Rules, the rules changes of 1890 helped to consolidate the power of the Speaker and the Rules Committee and to enable the majority party in the House to establish its legislative agenda without undue minority obstruction.
The Cannon Revolt
The power of the speakership and the Rules Committee continued to grow under Speaker Joseph G. Cannon (R-IL), who held the position from 1903 to 1910. Speaker Cannon was a strong believer in party discipline and did not hesitate to use his power in appointing committee members and chairmen and in removing those who did not toe the line.
His tactics and conservative philosophy eventually fomented a revolt by progressive Republican insurgents, led by Rep. George W. Norris (R-NE) and minority Democrats. On March 17, 1910, Rep. Norris offered a resolution as a matter of constitutional privilege to change House rules by removing the Speaker as chairmen and a member of the Rules Committee and by expanding its membership from five to fifteen, to be chosen by state groupings.
A point of order was made against the resolution on the grounds that it was not privileged under the Constitution. Speaker Cannon allowed debate on the point of order and resolution to continue until March 19, when he sustained the point of order by citing an 1878 precedent involving a ruling by Democratic Speaker Samuel J. Randall. Speaker Cannon's decision was appealed to the House and was overturned, 182 to 162. The Norris resolution subsequently was adopted, 191 to 156, after he amended it to provide for a ten-member committee elected by the House. Although the Norris resolution did not strip the Speaker of his power to appoint committees, the same effect was achieved in 1911. When Democrats took control of the House that year, they adopted rules requiring the election of committees by the House.
The Rules Committee in a Decentralized Era
Although the Cannon revolt dealt a blow to the speakership, the Rules Committee’s powers remained undiminished and, for the next twenty-seven years, it continued to function as an arm of the majority leadership in scheduling legislation for the floor. The revolt did, however, lead to a period of decentralization in the House in which committees came to act as independent power centers, bolstered by the institutionalization of the seniority system. This trend gradually caught up with the Rules Committee, as well.
The committee had played a key role in expediting much of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation during his first term by reporting closed rules on major legislation, particularly during President Roosevelt’s famous First Hundred Days. A total of ten closed rules were reported in the 73rd Congress (1933-1935). But a reaction against President Roosevelt’s policies began to set in during the 74th Congress (1935-1937); this reaction echoed on the Rules Committee, which Rep. John J. O’Connor (D-NY), a New Deal skeptic, had just taken over as chairman.
By President Roosevelt’s second term, beginning in 1937, the Rules Committee had ceased to function as an arm of the majority leadership and instead came under the control of a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans, which held sway until 1961. Only during the brief periods of Republican control of the House in the 80th and 83rd Congresses (1947-1949 and 1953-1955) did the Committee revert to its majority-supporting role.
Rearming the Leadership
The first major chink in the conservative coalition’s armor was lodged in 1961, when Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX), acting in concert with the new administration of President John F. Kennedy, moved to enlarge the committee from twelve to fifteen members, including two additional Democrats and one Republican.
The resolution to enlarge the Rules Committee (H. Res. 127) was reported by the Rules Committee by a vote of 6 to 2 on January 14, 1961, with only committee Democrats in attendance. Chairman Howard W. Smith (D-VA) and Rep. William M. Colmer (D-MS) cast the dissenting votes. Following an hour of debate on the resolution on January 31, which included impassioned pleas from Speaker Rayburn and Chairman Smith on opposing sides, the House adopted the resolution by a vote of 217 to 212. Only two Republicans voted for the resolution, and sixty-four Democrats voted against it.
Despite an increase in the Rules Committee’s cooperation with the leadership, it continued to obstruct floor consideration of certain education, labor, and civil rights bills for the duration of the Kennedy administration. By the 90th Congress (1967-1969), the Committee had become much more cooperative with the majority leadership, mainly because of the elevation of Rep. Colmer to the chairmanship following Chairman Smith's electoral defeat in 1966. Although of similar ideological bent to Chairman Smith, Chairman Colmer viewed the role of the Committee in a different way, in part reflecting his own threatened ouster from the Committee and the adoption of committee rules in 1967 permitting a committee majority to circumvent a recalcitrant chairman.
By the mid 1970’s, with the reform movement sweeping Congress, the Rules Committee was fully restored as an arm of the leadership. With the departure of Chairman Colmer in 1972, the succeeding Democratic chairmen (Ray J. Madden of Indiana, 1973-1976; James J. Delaney of New York, 1977-1978; Richard W. Bolling of Missouri, 1979-1982; Claude Pepper of Florida, 1983-1989; and John Joseph Moakley of Massachusetts, 1989-1994) reflected the reform-minded orientation of the House.
The reform movement also precipitated decentralization of power in the House, partially because of the growth of semiautonomous subcommittees and the new practice of referring bills to more than one committee. This decentralization in turn posed a challenge to the leadership and the Rules Committee to draw varying policies together for unified legislative action. The Rules Committee’s centralizing role under the leadership was most apparent in the growth during the 1980’s of special rules that structured the amendment process on major legislation.
Reforms and Original Jurisdiction
The authority of the Rules Committee to amend the standing rules of the House often is referred to as its original jurisdiction. Indeed, this was the sole function of the Committee for most of its first century. But even when it was a select committee between 1789 and 1880, its members were reluctant to propose sweeping House reforms through rules changes. The major rules reforms of 1860 and 1880 were generated by specially-appointed panels.
Even after the Rules Committee became a standing committee, its members’ reluctance to make it an agent of reform in the House continued. Following the 1910 revolt against Speaker Cannon came the practice of reporting House rules changes at the beginning of a Congress from the majority party caucus instead of waiting for the Rules Committee to act. This practice continued in the late twentieth century.
Moreover, further rules reforms of any magnitude often are initiated by special entities outside the Rules Committee. This is done not only to ensure broader institutional representation and support but also because so much of the Rules Committee’s time is consumed with granting special rules for bills from other committees. For example, the 1946 and 1970 Legislative Reorganization Acts originated from joint House-Senate committees; the 1974 Budget Act from a joint committee on the budget; and the House Committee Reform Amendments of 1974 from a bipartisan select committee. But in most such reform efforts, not only were the Rules Committee members represented on the special panels, but the committee itself retained final review authority and the right to recommend substantive changes. This was especially true with the 1970 Legislative Reorganization Act and the 1974 Budget Act.
After the mid 1970’s, the Rules Committee increased its staff resources considerably and created two subcommittees for original jurisdiction matters, giving it still greater potential to play a major role in House reform efforts. These subcommittees are charged with reviewing the budget process and the procedures of the House.
In sum, the great paradox of the Rules Committee is that while it originally was created to develop a set of standing rules and uniform order of business for the House, its principal role now is to devise special rules to manage floor debate on legislation outside of those standing rule. This development, over a two-century period, reflects the growing complexity of the Congress and the issues it confronts, the changing relationships among its internal components, and the ultimate need for a mechanism to assist the leadership in coordinating and processing the business of the Congress in an orderly and expeditious fashion.
As an arm of the leadership, regardless of which party controls the House, the Committee is at the center of both political and legislative battles, performing precarious balancing acts between majority will and minority rights, leadership needs and membership demands, and a wide range of public policy options. The flexibility of the Committee over the years to adapt to changing circumstances and help bring order out of uncertainty is the best measure of its continuing utility and necessity.
Bolling, Richard. Power in the House. 1968
Galloway, George B. History of the United States House of Representatives. 1961
Oppenheimer, Bruce I. "The Rules Committee: New Arm of Leadership in a Decentralized House." In Congress Reconsidered. Edited by Lawrence C. Dodd and Bruce I. Oppenheimer. 1st ed. 1977.
U.S. House of Representatives. Deschlers Precedents of the United States House of Representatives, by Lewis Deschler. 94th Cong., 2nd sess., 1977. H. Doc. 94-661. Vol. 4.
U.S. House of Representatives. Committee on Rules. A History of the Committee on Rules. 97th Cong., 2nd sess., 1983. Committee Print.
Donald R. Wolfesnberger - Chief of Staff
Rules Committee, House by Donald R. Wolfensberger. Used by permission of Macmillan Library
Reference USA, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc., from THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS, Edited by Donald C. Bacon, Roger H. Davidson, and Morton Keller. Vol. 3, pp. 1744-1748. Copyright c 1995 by The Fund for the Study of Congress. Repreduction of this material is prohibited without the written consent of the publisher.