Rules Committee - In the Beginning...

RULES COMMITTEE, HOUSE. A procedural committee known as the Committee on Rules has jurisdiction over "the rules and joint rules... and order of business of the House," and authority "to report at any time" on such matters (House Rules X, clause 1[q], and XI, clauses 4[a] and [b]).

In Congresses of the late twentieth century, the Rules Committee consisted of thirteen members, nine from the majority party, four from the minority party. This heavy majority party ratio of 2 to 1 plus 1 reflected the committee's status since the mid 1970s as an "arm of the leadership" and "legislative gatekeeper." The committee of the 1990s served principally to assist the majority leadership in scheduling bills for floor action. Bills were scheduled by means of special rules that gave them priority status for consideration in the House and established 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 and changing roles of the Rules Committee in many respects mirror the historical development of the House itself and the changing relationships among its leaders, members committees and parties.

Evolution of the Committees Role. On 2 April 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." On 7 April the select committee reported back to the House a set of four rules that the House adopted without amendment. These rules dealt with the duties of the Speaker, decorum and debate, bill procedure, and procedure for the Committee of the Whole.

On 13 April, 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 not to fade into history. In less than two weeks, it had established a set of rules that would endure at the heart of House parliamentary practice for the next two centuries.

Early role. For ninety years, the Rules Committee remained a temporary, select committee, appointed at the beginning of each Congress for the purpose of recommending changes in 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 made no reports.

There were hints during this period, though, of the larger role of the Rules Committee would eventually assume of reordering the House's legislative business. On 16 June 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 6 July, 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 16 June 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 nondebateable amendments for several more hours before the measure was finally reported back to the House). The Rules Committee had for the first time exercised its authority to intervene in the consideration of a specific bill.

Other foretokens of the modern Rules Committee came in the 31st and 32 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 the 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 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 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 modern Rules Committee emerged as the Speaker's committee and the legislative scheduling agent for the House. Its first chairman (1880), Speaker Samuel J. Randall (D-Pa.), used his authority to bolster the influence of the speaker-ship, establishing that all future rules changes should be referred to the Rules Committee and that its reports could be brought tho the floor any time.

The powers of the Committee and the speaker-ship continued to grow when Republicans took control of the House in 1881. One of the first to recognize the potential of the Rules Committee was Thomas B. Reed (R-Me.). Appointed to the Rules Committee in January of 1882, 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 26 February 1833. 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 controversial tariff bill.

A point of order was made by Rep. Joseph C.S. Blackburn (D-Ky.), against the resolution on the grounds that the Rules Committee did not have authority to report the resolution since it was neither a rule nor an amendment to House rules. Speaker J. Warren Keifer (R-Ohio), 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, so too could it do so "though [the rule] 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, Reed was elected Speaker and thus became the chairman of the Rules Committee as well. He moved immediately to rely on the Rules Committee to control legislative business on the floor through the use of special orders. Reed would later 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."

Reed also moved swiftly as Speaker to eliminate minority obstruction of floor business by issuing rulings from the chair that outlawed dilatory motions and "disappearing quorums." 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 and expedite its legislative agenda without undue minority obstruction.

The Cannon Revolt. The power of the speaker-ship and the Rules Committee continued to grow under Speaker Joseph G. Cannon (R-Ill.), who held that position from 1903 to 1910. From his two pinnacles of power, Cannon ruled the House with such an iron fist that his nickname soon changed from "Uncle Joe" to "Czar Cannon." 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 formented a revolt by progressive Republican insurgents, led by George W. Norris (R-Nebr.) and joined by the minority Democrats. On 17 March 1910, 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. Cannon allowed debate on the point of order and resolution to continue until 19 March, when he sustained the point of order by citing an 1878 precedent involving a ruling by Democratic Speaker Randall. Cannon's decision was appealed to the House and was overturned, 182 to 162. The Norris resolution was subsequently 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.

Rules in a decentralized era. Although the Cannon revolt dealt a blow to the seakership, 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 Roosevelt's famous First Hundred Days. A total of ten closed rules were reported in the 73rd Congress (1933-1935). But a reaction against Roosevelt's increasingly liberal policies began to set in during the 74th Congress (1935-1937) - a reaction echoed on the Rules Committee, which John J. O'Connor (D-N.Y.), a New Deal skeptic, had just taken over as chairman.

By 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 coalitions'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 14 January 1961, with only committee Democrats in attendance. Chairman Howard W. Smith (D-Va.) and William M. Colmer (D-Miss.) cast the dissenting votes. Following an hour of debate on the resolution on 31 January, which included impassioned pleas from Rayburn and 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 some slight improvement in the enlarged Rules Committee's record of 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 Colmer to the chairmanship following Smith's primary defeat in 1966. Although of similar ideological bent to Smith, 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 1970s, in tandem with a liberal reform revolution sweeping the House, the Rules Committee was fully restored as an arm of the leadership. With the departure of Colmer in 1972, the succeeding Democratic chairmen (Ray J. Madden [Ind.], 1973-1976; James J. Delaney [N.Y.], 1977-1978; Richard W. Bolling [Mo.], 1979-1982; Claude Pepper [Fla.], 1983-1989; and John Joseph Moakley [Mass.], 1989 - ) reflected this more liberal orientation of the House. {In 1995, when control of the House shifted to the Republican party, Gerald B. Solomon [R-N.Y.] was selected to be chairman of the Rules Committee}.

The Democratic Caucus was instrumental to the House reform movement. At the beginning of the 93rd Congress (1973-1975), the Caucus adopted a rule placing restrictions on the Rules Committee's ability to grant closed rules. At the beginning of the 94th Congress (1975-1977), it gave the Speaker authority to nominate all Democratic Rules Committee members to the caucus.

The reform movement also precipitated enormous decentralization of power in the House, partially because of the growth and institutionalization 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 things back together for unified legislative action.

The Rules Committee's centralizing role under the leadership was most apparent in the growth during the 1980s of "complex" and "restrictive" special rules that both limited and structured the amendment process on major legislation. Whereas restrictive rules constituted only 15 percent of all rules in the mid 1970s, by the end of the 1980s they made up 55 percent, according to a Rules Committee minority staff study.

Many restrictive rules were worked out in cooperation with the minority and were adopted by wide margins. Others continued to run into strong opposition on grounds that they unfairly limited amendments in order to produce predictable results.

Original Jurisdiction and Reform. The authority of the Rules Committee to amend the standing rules of the House is often 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 and agent of reform in the House continued. With the rise of "King Caucus" 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 inn the late twentieth century.

Moreover, further rules reforms of any magnitude are often initiated by special entities outside the Rules Committee. This is done in part 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 in joint House-Senate committees; the 1974 Budget Act in a joint committee on the budget; and the House Committee Reform Amendments of 1974 in a bipartisan select committee (followed by a major rewrite in a Democratic caucus 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 1970s, 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.

In sum, the great paradox of the Rules Committee is that while it was originally created to develop a set of standing rules and uniform order of business for the House, its principal role in the 1990s is to devise special rules that depart from the standing rules and regular order. 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 of both parties, 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.
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