Introduction of the Rules Committee
“Ordered: That a committee be appointed to prepare and report such standing rules and order of proceeding as may be proper to be observed in this House.”
On April 2, 1789—a day after Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was elected the first Speaker—the House called the Rules Committee into existence with a deceptively simple directive: “Ordered: That a committee be appointed to prepare and report such standing rules and order of proceeding as may be proper to be observed in this House.”[i] The House appointed 11 Members to the first committee, including James Madison of Virginia, father of the Constitution, as well as Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, signers of the Declaration of Independence and among the chamber’s most accomplished figures.
Within a week of its inception, the committee reported back the first set of rules governing the House’s legislative business. In all, they filled little more than two printed pages in the House Journal and fell under four broad categories: the Speaker’s duties and powers; decorum and debate; disposition of bills; and the operations of the Committee of the Whole.[ii] The Committee based many of its recommendations on precedent derived from the British House of Commons and from more than 170 years of experience in various colonial assemblies and state legislatures. Remarkably, the hurried creation and quick work of that first Committee set in motion a process that continues to this day, as some of the basic principles codified two centuries ago still govern the chamber.
In that sense, the history of the Committee on Rules reflects the history of the House’s legislative process, adjusting as the House grew in size and its operations became increasingly complicated. Much of the Committee’s history has been marked by the need to strike a delicate balance between competing imperatives—allowing the majority to work its will and, simultaneously, protecting the right of the minority. In the modern era, the Rules Committee serves as the agent that effects the “order of business of the House,” working collaboratively with House leadership.[iii]
[i] House Journal, 1st Cong., 1st sess. (2 April 1789): 6.
[ii] House Journal, 1st Cong., 1st sess. (7 April 1789): 8–11.
[iii] See the modern Rule X, cl.(O), House Rules and Manual, 114th Congress: 472–474.
The Early Years, 1789—1880
Except for five Congresses between 1799 and 1827, the House organized the Rules Committee as a select committee at the opening of each Congress for nearly all of its first 90 years.[i] These select panels reviewed the existing rules and suggested changes, and usually lasted only a few months before being disbanded after reporting back to the full House. Some of the leading lights of the House served on these select rules committees, including John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, revered by his colleagues as “Old Man Eloquent,” a leading abolitionist, and the only former President to serve in the House. Others, such as Alexander Stephens of Georgia, the future Confederate Vice President, and James K. Polk, a future Speaker and U.S. President, also performed yeoman’s service on the rules committees.
In the late 1840s, however, the House elevated the Rules Committee to standing status. It’s unclear what caused the change, though many Members had suggested in various debates over the better part of a decade that the House rules needed a major overhaul. Still, some objected to the notion of a standing committee—fearing that without the restrictions imposed on a select panel, a permanent Rules Committee might never be compelled to report revisions to the House.
Nevertheless, at the opening of the 31st Congress (1849–1851), the House made Rules a standing committee and appointed nine Members to the panel; David Kaufman of Texas served as the chairman.[ii] In early January 1850, the committee reported and the House adopted 23 rules changes. They included one which significantly expanded the power of the Rules Committee and heralded things to come. It read, “The Committee on Rules shall take charge of all matters pertaining to the rules of proceeding in the House, may report at any time, and their report shall lie over for one day for consideration; and a motion to consider the same on any subsequent day shall be a privileged motion.”[iii]
Despite its initial successes, the committee’s ascendancy ended abruptly. Chairman Kaufman died a year later, less than two months after the opening of the second session of the 31st Congress. The committee reported no rules revisions, and lapsed as a full standing committee, reverting to a select committee in subsequent Congresses.
Interestingly, during the mid-1800s it became common for former Speakers who remained in the House to serve on the committee after leaving the Speakership—an indication that the House valued their expertise in parliamentary procedure. In 1858, an important innovation occurred when a sitting Speaker (South Carolina’s James Orr) served on the committee for the first time. In the following Congress, Speaker William Pennington of New Jersey became the first sitting Speaker to chair the select committee. Subsequent Speakers did the same, and a new precedent took root.
[i] According to Oleszak (intro), these were the 6th, 15th, 16th, 18th, and 19th Congresses.
[ii] Congressional Globe, House, 31st Cong., 1st sess. (24 and 27 December 1849): 67–68; 75–78.
[iii] H. Rep. No. 1, 31st Congress, 1st sess. (7 January 1850): 1–2.
Standing Committee and Speaker Dominance, 1880—1910
In the years after the Civil War, the House dealt with an increasingly larger and more complicated work load. The country’s population boomed and the House’s membership increased along with it—growing from 238 Members in 1859 to 293 at opening of the 46th Congress (1879–1881). In such a dynamic environment, the rules became unwieldy and, many Members believed, impeded the House’s work. At one point, the House had 166 different rules: most of them had been created on an ad hoc basis over the last few decades, and more than one-third had been crafted prior to 1800, when the House was a vastly different place with barely 100 Members.
Speaker Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania and the select rules committee that met in December 1879 recognized the need for better organization. They called for a permanent standing committee, reporting to the full House “that a complete revision and codification of the rules was not only a parliamentary, but a practical business necessity.”[i] Under Randall’s leadership, the committee spearheaded changes to the body of House rules in early 1880, streamlining them to just 44 and elevating the Rules Committee to standing status. The jurisdiction of the new permanent Rules Committee, stated in Rule XI, extended to “All proposed action touching the rules and joint rules.”[ii] Importantly, Speakers continued to chair the standing committee. Speaker Randall, and his successors, used the new rules to increase the power of the presiding officer, ensuring that any future proposed rules changes would have to be approved by the Rules Committee (and hence the Speaker). Moreover, the House cleared the way for the new Rules Committee to bring its reports to the floor as privileged motions.[iii]
Thus, the story of the Rules Committee became intertwined with development of the Speaker’s Office. Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine joined the Rules Committee during the 47th Congress in 1882, when Republicans were in the minority. When they gained the majority in the 1888 elections, Reed ascended to the Speakership already well versed in how the House worked from his years on the Rules Committee. His parliamentary prowess and rapier-like wit made him a fearsome presiding officer. At the opening of the 51st Congress (1889–1891), in his first term as Speaker, he imposed a set of new procedures, dubbed “Reed’s Rules,” which among other things cut off dilatory tactics long-employed by the minority (including the “Disappearing Quorum”) and expedited the flow of legislation. His use of the Rules Committee to steer business swiftly through the House via special orders helped free up the majority to work its legislative will.
Reed’s reign began a 20-year period in which House Speakers wielded nearly unchecked power. Before the rise of the Democratic Caucus and Republican Conference, the Speaker determined the committee assignments of every Member of the House—irrespective of their party. So not only was the Speaker the presiding officer who controlled the debate on the House Floor but, by virtue of the fact that he also chaired the Rules Committee, he set the very terms of debate backed by hand-selected political allies.
By the time that Reed’s former lieutenant, Joseph Cannon of Illinois, assumed the Speakership in 1903, the powers of that office had reached their pinnacle. Cannon exercised such tight control over the House that people simply called him “Czar Cannon.” Reporters dubbed his habit of making arbitrary rulings from the chair and enforcing strict party discipline as “Cannonism.”
Eventually, progressives in his own party clashed with the more conservative Cannon after he repeatedly blocked their legislative efforts. Collier’s Magazine, one of the progressive organs, noted that “on the political railway, Mr. Cannon was not an engineer but a brakeman.” On March 17, 1910, a group of progressive Republican insurgents, led by George Norris of Nebraska, offered a privileged resolution to strip Cannon of the chairmanship of the Rules Committee and to expand the panel’s membership. Two days of debate ensued, after which Cannon sustained a point of order against the Norris resolution. But the House overturned that ruling, and then voted 191 to 156 to adopt Norris’s proposal. A weakened Speaker Cannon, now stripped of his chairmanship of Rules, served out the balance of the 61st Congress (1909–1911), until Democrats regained the House majority in the 1910 elections.
[i] H. Rep. 24, “Rules of the House,” 46th Cong., 2nd sess. (19 December 1879): 1–2.
[ii] H. Rep. 390, “Rules of the House,” 46th Cong., 2nd sess. (27 February 1880): 5, 7.
[iii] Wolfensberger, “Rules Committee” in the Encyclopedia of the U.S. Congress: 1745.
Post Revolt Era, 1910—1937
When Champ Clark of Missouri won the Speaker’s gavel at the opening of the 62nd Congress (1911–1913), he faced an entirely new world in which the Speaker, no longer sitting on the Rules Committee, wielded far less influence than in years past. In the wake of the Cannon revolt, the power to make committee appointments had shifted to the Ways and Means Committee, and in particular to the committee’s chairman Oscar Underwood, who simultaneously served as Majority Leader. As Democrats experimented with a short-lived period of caucus rule and with the Speaker’s influence waning throughout this period, the Rules Committee remained largely an instrument of party leaders to schedule legislation for the floor.
Under Republican rule in the 1920s, during the Speakerships of Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts and Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, the Rules Committee retained its authority and hewed to the leadership’s wishes. With Bertrand Snell of New York wielding the chairman’s gavel, the committee shepherded through substantial rules changes in 1924. One, approved by the full House, curbed the Rules chairman’s ability to exercise what amounted to a “pocket veto” on resolutions reported from his committee. Another revision prohibited the House from considering a special rule on the same day the committee reported it to the full chamber (unless a two-thirds majority of Members approved its consideration). This change aimed to protect Members from being “taken by surprise” by a ruling. Lastly, the House approved a revision to what had been a convoluted discharge petition process, simplifying the requirement to dislodge a bill mired in committee for direct consideration on the floor. The new rule required that 150 Members (a little more than a third of the House) sign a petition, but it also subjected resolutions to the discharge process—making the Rules Committee itself vulnerable to being discharged.[i]
The Rules Committee remained a valuable agent of House leaders into the 1930s. During the so-called first “100 Days” of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration—in which a raft of emergency legislation moved through Congress to combat the effects of the Great Depression—the House Rules Committee played an important role. Under the chairmanship of Edward Pou of North Carolina and impelled by the deepening economic crisis, the committee assisted House leaders and the administration in expediting the flow of bills to the floor. No previous session of Congress had ever operated under so many closed rules as those that governed debates on major pieces of legislation in the 73rd Congress (1933–1935), such as the Emergency Banking Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the Securities Act.[ii]
In the quarter century from the Cannon Revolt to the New Deal Congresses, power and policy control slowly devolved from House leadership to the individual committees. Whereas Speakers once doled out prime committee assignments to political friends, parties now rewarded their longest serving Members with chairmanships and spots on the most powerful committees. By the 1930s, the old patronage system had more or less disappeared and southern Members, who faced few challenges to their incumbency in the South’s one-party system, ran most major committees. They retained outsized influence over legislation crafted before their panels, and many ran their committees like personal fiefdoms.
The entrenchment of the seniority system and the gradual shift in the House’s center of power signaled that a more independent Rules Committee lay just around the corner.
[i] A History of the Rules Committee (1983): 116–122.
[ii] A History of the Rules Committee (1983): 125–129.
Conservative Coalition Era, 1937—1961
By the late 1930s, conservative southern Democrats and Republicans coalesced in opposition to the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt administration. Dominated by members of this coalition, the Rules Committee steered its own course and, by the later part of this period, acted as a brake on leadership’s efforts to pass civil rights reforms and social policy legislation. The committee’s independence from leadership prevailed for nearly a quarter-century, with the exception of the 80th (1947–1949) and the 83rd Congresses (1953–1955) in which Republicans briefly held the majority.[i]
Among the Rules Committee’s leading chairmen in this era were John J. O’Connor of New York (74th– 75th Congresses, 1935–1939) and Adolph Sabath of Illinois (76th–79th Congresses and 81st–82nd Congresses, 1939–1947; 1949–1953). The longest-serving chairman in the committee’s history, Judge Howard Smith of Virginia (1955–1967), was also the most influential of this period.
Despite holding eight of the 12 committee spots, the Democratic majority failed to notch many substantive legislative victories during Judge Smith’s tenure as chairman. Smith and William Colmer of Mississippi, both Southern Dixiecrats who supported segregation, joined forces with four Republican members to create a deadlock on the committee, particularly when it came to civil rights reform.
Frustrated by Chairman Smith’s ability to bottleneck legislation, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas sought to end the impasse by changing House rules to add three spots (two majority and one minority) to the committee—bringing the number of Members from 12 to 15. On January 18, 1961, two days before President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Rayburn met with the Democratic Caucus to present his plan. With little fanfare, the caucus approved it by a voice vote, ensuring its delivery to the floor for a full House vote. During debate, detractors of House Res. 127 likened the measure to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s effort to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937. Rayburn defended his plan in a rare speech on the House Floor. “I think this House should be allowed on great measures to work its will if the Committee on Rules is so constituted as not to allow the House to pass on those things.” In a dramatic 217 to 212 vote, Rayburn and the Democratic leadership won a narrow but significant victory. The next day, Carl Elliott of Alabama, B.F. Sisk of California, and Elmer Hoffman of Illinois joined the expanded committee.
[i] Wolfensberger, “Rules Committee”: 1746–1747.
Becoming an Agent of Majority Leadership
Despite his diluted majority on the committee, Chairman Smith led Rules until he left Congress in 1967, meaning that the Rules Committee only gradually became more responsive to leadership direction. Smith continued to use his power as chairman to obstruct consideration of key bills, sometimes simply by refusing to convene meetings.
With the Rules Committee firmly under Smith’s control, Members who wanted to reform the House’s internal procedure began looking for new, broader ways of effecting change. The pressure to reform the House had been building for decades and by the late 1960s advocates turned to the Democratic Caucus (the majority party) and to a joint House–Senate committee that considered legislative reforms.
During this era, the Rules Committee also had its fair share of internal reformers, a number of whom served on the larger reorganization panels—among them, Richard Bolling of Missouri, one of the leading proponents of reform, who eventually chaired the Rules Committee from 1979 to 1983. The landmark Legislative Reform Act of 1970—like its predecessor in 1946—was crafted by a special committee on the organization of Congress. But in the end, the standing Rules Committee retained the right of final review over any rules changes—such as the Legislative Reform Act, which changed committee rules and increased staffing, and the mid-1970s reforms, which broke the reign of entrenched chairmen and further empowered subcommittees.
These changes—as well as other reforms like the Budget Act of 1974 that greatly increased the complexity of proceedings—had immediate consequences for the Rules Committee. The expanded role of subcommittees and the proliferation of bill referrals to multiple committees so greatly decentralized the House that the Rules Committee became—again—an important tool of leadership eager to streamline the flow of legislation. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, with leadership’s continuing imperative to routinize legislative processes, the Rules Committee relied more and more on restrictive rules that helped structure complex legislation, often by limiting the amendment process on the floor.
Since the reforms of the 1970s, the committee has served as a flexible instrument for both centralization and decentralization in the House. In the modern era, with a 9-to-4 ratio favoring the majority party—and with the committee’s majority- and minority-party Members appointed by the Speaker and Minority Leader, respectively—the committee retains an integral role in shaping the legislative process.
For Further Reading
A History of the Committee on Rules, 1st to 97th Congress, 1789–1981 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1983).
Bolling, Richard. Power in the House: A History of the Leadership of the House of Representatives (New York: Dutton, 1968).
Follett, Mary Parker. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, reprint of 1902 edition (New York: Burt Franklin Reprints, 1974).
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 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1977).
Robinson, J. A. The House Rules Committee (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, Inc., 1963).
Wolfensberger, Donald. “Rules Committee, House,” in Donald Bacon et al., The Encyclopedia of the U.S. Congress Volume 3 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 1744–1788.