History And Purpose Of Rules In The United States House Of Representatives And Senate – Guest Essayist: Amanda Hughes

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In his Manual of Parliamentary Practice, Thomas Jefferson wrote regarding rules:

“be in all cases the most rational or not, is really not of so great importance. It is much more material that there should be a rule to go by than what that rule is; that there may be a uniformity of proceeding in business, not subject to the caprice of the Speaker or captiousness of the members. It is very material that order, decency, and regularity be preserved in a dignified public body.”

Formally established by law in April of 1789 and chaired by the House Speaker until 1910, the Committee on Rules is one of the oldest standing, or permanent, committees in the United States House of Representatives. It is considered “The Speaker’s Committee” as it is used to maintain order on the House Floor. The House Committee on Rules was established as a standing committee in the late 1840s.

When the First Congress of the United States House of Representatives met at Federal Hall in New York under the new Constitution in 1789, the first Senate also convened. At this time, a rules committee was established to conduct the separate business of the Senate, and in 1874, the Senate Committee on Rules was designated as a standing committee.

“Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings,” –Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2, United States Constitution

Rules in the United States Senate contrast more than compare to rules of the House and some interesting differences exist between the House and Senate rules. Proceedings, for example, lie in how each chamber, or body, requires a quorum, conducts debate, refers measures (bills or filed legislation going through the legislative process to potentially become law) to specific committees, places measures on a specific type of calendar for consideration, and votes. The House Committee on Rules is considered powerful, able to do much of anything deemed necessary; there is no such equal committee in the Senate.

The House Speaker, being the majority party leader and presiding officer, is able to govern proceedings, to recognize or not recognize a Member to rise and debate. Requests for the purpose of recognition on the House Floor are typically made based on precedence in order to maintain soundness and continuity of Congress. Debate time on the Floor is limited in the House per Representative, while each Senator is allowed unlimited Floor time to debate including filibuster. On the Senate Floor, the presiding officer must recognize the first Senator standing and seeking recognition. Other Senate leaders determine who speaks next depending on Senate rulings and precedents.

When measures that are not controversial in nature make it to the Floor for consideration, most are approved in the House by “suspension of the rules” which is a procedure the House uses to pass widely supported measures, that prohibits floor amendments and limits debate time, and requires a two-thirds majority for the bill’s passage. However, a similar measure’s passage would be obtained by unanimous consent in the Senate. Another difference is that a legislative day can run for several calendar days in the Senate which tends to recess, whereas the House adjourns at the end of a legislative day. Application of a different process to begin business again depends on whether a recess or adjournment occurs.

Rules introduced in the United States House of Representatives and Senate over two hundred years ago have certainly changed through decades of Congresses. While early versions of congressional rules at times proved unruly and in need of reform as new developments often may, America’s Founders recognized early the necessity for order. They moved first to set systems for properly conducting business. They continued efforts to fill needs for fair and efficient proceedings. In hopes of setting precedents that would not impede their work but instead prove beneficial to the preamble’s “We the People,” the Founders and Constitution Framers looked to affirm that the “First Branch” of American government would exist to serve its citizens.

Amanda Hughes serves as Outreach Director, and 90 Day Study Director, for Constituting America. She is the author of Who Wants to Be Free? Make Sure You Do!, and a story contributor for the anthologies Loving Moments(2017), and Moments with Billy Graham(forthcoming).

Sources:

House of Representatives Committee on Rules – “About the Committee on Rules – History and Processes”
https://rules.house.gov/about

House of Representatives Committee on Rules – “History of the Rules Committee”
https://rules.house.gov/history-rules-committee

United States Senate Rules Administration – “History: Introduction”
https://www.rules.senate.gov/about/history

CRS Report for Congress – “House and Senate Rules of Procedure: A Comparison” https://www.senate.gov/reference/reference_index_subjects/Rules_and_Procedure_vrd.htm

“United States Senate Origins and Development”
https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Origins_Development.htm

Congress.gov – “The Legislative Process: House Floor (Transcript)”
https://www.congress.gov/legislative-process/house-floor

1 reply
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Thank you for this essay and quick tutorial on Legislative rules.

    It made me think that the brilliance of the Founders not only lay in setting the precedence noted herein, but also to not write rules into the Constitution.

    PSD

    Reply

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