History and Jurisdiction
The Rules Committee has a long and storied history. The House established the first Rules Committee as a select committee on the second day of the First Congress, April 2, 1789, pursuant to the mandate in Article I, section 5, clause 2, of the Constitution that ‘‘[e]ach House may determine the rules of its proceedings.’’ The House order creating the Committee stated that a committee be appointed ‘‘to prepare and report such standing rules and orders of proceedings as may be proper to be observed in the House.’’ Since the moment of its inception, the Committee has followed these mandates.
From the beginning, the members serving on the Rules Committee included not only some of the most prominent members of the House but also many distinguished Founders of the nation. Among others, the first eleven Members on the Committee included: (1) Mr. James Madison of Virginia, the ‘‘Father of the Constitution’’ and future President of the United States; (2) Mr. Roger Sherman of Connecticut, the only one of the Founding Fathers to help prepare and sign all four of the most important documents of the early nation, namely the Articles of Association, the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution; (3) Mr. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, President of the Continental Congress from November 1782 to November 1783; and (4) Mr. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, a future Vice President of the United States and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.
Five days after its appointment, the first Select Committee on Rules began exercising its responsibilities. It reported four rules on: (1) the duties of the Speaker, (2) decorum and debate, (3) the disposition of bills, and (4) the operations of the Committee of the Whole. Six days later, on April 13, 1789 the Select Committee reported an additional eight rules dealing with such matters as the service of Members on committees, Members’ attendance during floor proceedings, the creation of a standing Committee on Elections, the duties of the Clerk, and the duties of the Sergeant-at-Arms. With the adoption by the House of these rules, the Select Committee was dissolved.
During the first 90 years of the House, this pattern continued. At the beginning of each congress, the House would establish a Select Committee on Rules, the Select Committee would report any recommended revisions in the standing rules from those of the previous Congress, and then it would dissolve. In some Congresses, the House did not appoint a Select Committee on Rules and instead operated under the rules adopted in the preceding congress.
The status of the Select Committee changed over the next several decades. Although the House in its early years relied primarily on select committees to draft legislation, by the mid-nineteenth century the House established thirty-four standing committees that would take over such responsibilities. In 1880, the House ultimately converted the Rules Committee into a permanent standing committee chaired by the Speaker of the House. It was this Speaker-Chairman position, combined with the newly-emerging role of the Committee to report rules managing consideration of legislation on the floor that cemented the Committee’s place in political history.
In 1883, the modern Rules Committee began to emerge when the House upheld the right of the Committee to issue ‘‘special orders of business’’ or ‘‘special rules’’ providing for the consideration of legislation from other committees. By 1890, this new role had become the exclusive prerogative of the Rules Committee.
Special rules, which were and are House resolutions reported from the Rules Committee, were important because they required only a majority vote of the House to provide for the consideration of bills out of the order in which they appeared on the floor Calendar.
This is notable because, until the use of special rules, a two thirds vote was required to suspend the general rule and consider a bill out of order. In short, a majority now could do what before required a super-majority. Special rules gained importance because they gave the House flexibility in its legislative agenda, which in turn, allowed for House leadership to respond to changing judgments about the nation’s needs at any given time.
Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine was the individual most responsible for recognizing and utilizing the full potential of the combined powers of Speaker and Rules Committee Chairman; this is because he served in those two roles from 1889 to 1891 and then again from l895 to 1899. Not only did he use his authority as Speaker to make rulings from the Chair that outlawed certain obstructionist tactics on the House floor; he also proceeded to codify these rulings, known as ‘‘Reed’s Rules,’’ in the standing rules of the House through his capacity as Rules Committee Chairman. Speaker Reed also made regular use of the Rules Committee to report special rules that enabled him to schedule bills he wanted on the floor when he wished, and under his terms of debate and amendment.
This powerful Speaker-Chairman position ended in 1910 in a revolt against Speaker Joseph Cannon of Illinois. Speaker Cannon had served as Speaker and Rules Committee Chairman since 1903.
Disaffected by Speaker Cannon’s autocratic rule, a group of Republican insurgents joined with the Democratic minority to bypass the Rules Committee and directly amend House Rules from the floor.
The group amended the Rules to strip the Speaker of his chairmanship and membership on the Rules Committee, as well as his power to appoint Members to the Committee. They also voted to enlarge the Committee from five to ten members elected by the House. The following year, a new Democratic majority completed the revolution by taking away the Speaker’s power to appoint members to all of the other committees of the House. Since then, the House has elected all members to standing committees.
This revolt had far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. While the Rules Committee continued to serve as the scheduling arm of the House leadership, it developed a more independent streak around the time of the New Deal, when many Rules Committee members were opposed to the policies of President Roosevelt. Between the years of 1937 and 1961, the Committee was dominated by a conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans who sometimes would refuse to report rules on bills that the majority leadership wanted on the floor, or they would report such rules only under their own terms and timing. In 1961, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas and President John F. Kennedy led a successful effort to enlarge the membership of the Committee, from 12 to 15 Members, however this did not produce the desired effect. It was not until the mid-1970s, with a large influx of new Democratic members, that the Rules Committee was fully restored as an arm of the majority leadership.
The reform movement of the mid-1970s also produced further decentralization in the House with the emergence of more independent Members and the proliferation of semi-autonomous subcommittees. This decentralization soon led to pressures to give the majority leadership, in particular the Speaker acting through the Rules Committee, more authority to direct the business of the House.
In 1975, with a Democratic majority in the House, Democratic Caucus rules, which govern how the Democratic members will carry out their roles, gave the Democratic Speaker the authority to appoint all Rules Committee Democrats, subject to Caucus ratification. In 1989, with a Republican minority in the House, the Republican Conference, which governs how Republican members exercise their duties, gave the Minority Leader the same authority to appoint Republican members to the Rules Committee. Today, the slates of appointees recommended by the majority and minority leaders are still subject to approval by the whole House in the form of a House resolution.
While the most high-profile role of the Rules Committee is to direct legislative traffic to the House floor, the Committee is also responsible for other important business. For instance, as part of its gate-keeping work, the Committee must help resolve jurisdictional disputes between other standing committees. As is often the case, committees will report legislation with amendments that impact the jurisdiction of other committees. When legislation with such cross-jurisdictional language comes to the Committee, the Rules Committee must ensure that disputes are worked out so that legislation can reach the floor without controversy between House committees.
Finally, with the aid of the Office of the Parliamentarian, the Committee plays a role in ensuring compliance with the House Rules. Authorizing and appropriating committees often seek guidance in how to conduct their oversight and legislative responsibilities in accordance with the Rules. When questions arise regarding the propriety of certain courses of action, they turn to the Rules Committee or the Parliamentarian for the answer.
Overall, and notwithstanding changes in majority control, the Rules Committee continues its role of facilitating the deliberation and amending of legislation in the House.
Clause 1(o) of Rule X of the Rules of the House
Committee on Rules.
(1) Rules and joint rules (other than those relating to the Code of Official Conduct) and the order of business of the House.
(2) Recesses and final adjournments of Congress.