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About the Committee on Rules—History and Processes

The Committee

The Committee on Rules is amongst the oldest standing committees in the House, having been first formally constituted on April 2, 1789. The Committee is commonly known as “The Speaker’s Committee” because it is the mechanism that the Speaker uses to maintain control of the House Floor, and was chaired by the Speaker until 1910. Because of the vast power wielded by the Rules Committee, its ratio has traditionally been weighted in favor of the majority party, and has been in its “2 to 1 1” (9 majority and 4 minority members) configuration since the late 1970s.

The Rules Committee has two broad categories of jurisdiction: special orders for the consideration of legislation (known as “special rules” or “rules”) and original jurisdiction matters. A special rule provides the terms and conditions of debate on a measure or matter, consideration of which constitutes the bulk of the work of the Rules Committee. The Committee also considers original jurisdiction measures, which commonly represent changes to the standing rules of the House, or measures that contain special rules, such as the expedited procedures in trade legislation.

The Committee has the authority to do virtually anything during the course of consideration of a measure, including deeming it passed. The Committee can also include a self- executed amendment which could rewrite just parts of a bill, or the entire measure. In essence, so long as a majority of the House is willing to vote for a special rule, there is little that the Rules Committee cannot do.

Special Rule Process

The process for reporting a special rule is a mixture of House rules, committee rules, and long-established practice.

  1. The committee of jurisdiction sends a letter requesting a hearing by the Rules Committee. The letter usually includes a request that a hearing be scheduled, a stipulation of the type of special rule desired, the amount of debate time needed, and any waivers of House rules necessary for consideration of the bill.
  2. Rules Committee holds a hearing where the witnesses are the Members of the House who sit on the committee of jurisdiction or want to offer amendments.
  3. Rules Committee marks up a special rule. The Rules Committee, in consultation with the majority leadership and the substantive committee chairmen, determines the type of rule to be granted, including the amount of general debate, the amendment process, and waivers to be granted, if any.
  4. The special rule is reported and filed. Special rules must be filed from the floor while the House is in session.
  5. The special rule is considered and debated in the House. After a one-day layover, special rules may be considered on the House floor at any time. A two-thirds vote is necessary to consider a special rule on the same day that it is reported. The rule is debated under the hour rule. Special rules reported by the Rules Committee are debated under a House rule that permits Members specifically recognized by the Chair to hold the floor for no more than one hour. The hour is managed by the majority party member of the Rules Committee calling up the rule, not the committee that reported the underlying bill. Out of custom, one-half the time is yielded to a minority member of the Rules Committee. At the end of debate, the previous question is put to a vote in order to cut off further debate, prevent the offering of additional amendments to the rule, and bring the special rule to an immediate vote.

Special Rule Types

Rules are traditionally referred to along a spectrum, where on one end they are open and the other they are closed. While there is wide variation in the middle, there are certain standard kinds of rules.

  • Open rules - permit the offering of any amendment that otherwise complies with House rules, and allows debate under the 5-minute rule.
  • Modified-Open rules - operate much like an open rule, but have some restriction on the “universe” of amendments, either through a pre-printing requirement or an overall time limit on consideration of amendments.
  • Structured rules - specify that only certain amendments may be considered and specify the time for debate.
  • Closed rules - effectively eliminate the opportunity to consider amendments, other than those reported by the committee reporting the bill.