The United States House of Representatives is comprised of 435 members. Its size alone makes it fraught with complications, but in addition to its large acting body it processes and produces an incredible number of bills every year. In the 110th Congress, the House introduced a total of 7,335 bills (1). Because of the sheer size of the House, it is necessary and proper that it instate rules of governance to maintain proper order. Without these rules the House could easily descend into chaos, being comprised of competitive people with deeply differing views. It is all too simple for these individuals to fall into habits of name-calling, mad scrambles for power, and confusion. Power in the House exudes from every direction, since every man is elected as an equal. Rules and norms that outline behaviors and day-to-day proceedings effectively halt or, at the very least, provide the means to address bedlam and infractions of etiquette that may be born from this puzzled hierarchy, enabling the House of Representatives to preside over their everyday business. Rules of order in the United States House of Representatives are both traditional, going back to British parliamentary procedure, and flexible, easily adapting to the needs of each new session.
The Constitution of the United States provides some general guidelines on rules of order for the House of Representatives. It stipulates that the House must keep a journal of its proceedings, and also gives some rules on adjournment and when a quorum is needed. For the most part, it is from the Constitution that the House receives its powers, and therefore its legitimacy. The Constitution touches very little on the day-to-day rules. In fact in Article I, Section 5 it states that “each house may determine the rules of its proceedings,” leaving the door open for the House of Representatives and the Senate to make their own rules. Because of this (and other reasons, such as size and term length) both of these houses developed very different operation procedures. The House faces, in some ways, many more problems to keeping order, being over four times the size of the Senate, and processing more bills per session than the Senate.
The Constitution was definitely not the only influence to the early rules of the House, as it would be insufficient to effectively govern the body’s everyday procedures. The early congressman looked back to their past, and took cues from the British Parliament in order to develop normative values and specific rules. Thomas Jefferson, for example, especially recognized in “Jefferson’s Manual” (which is still a part of the House’s governing rules) the proceedings of the House of Commons (2). Although the rules that the House of Representatives follows have evolved into something much unlike British Parliament (Comparing C-SPAN coverage of British Parliament and the United States Congress, one can see distinct differences in how fellow legislators are addressed, and the tone of the debates. The British Parliament seems much more informal, more likely to insult and interrupt), there are still definite similarities, and that connection to the British Parliament provided a stable model for how a legislature may be smoothly run. Therefore, the rules that govern Congress were not pulled from nowhere, but rather were based on something that had proven effective, although it did not fit exactly with the needs of the United States House of Representatives.
A day in a normal session of the House of Representatives begins with the Sergeant at Arms entering with the House of Representatives mace, leading the Speaker of the House to the rostrum. The current Sergeant at Arms is Wilson Livingood, and he is charged with the responsibility of being the chief law enforcement officer of the House. The mace is placed to the right of the Speaker, and the Sergeant at Arms may present it before an unruly member of the House to restore order. The video below is of the first few minutes of the opening session on February 23rd, 2010. One can see the Sergeant at Arms perform his daily duties.
After the Speaker is seated, he calls the House to order with his gavel. On this day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is absent, and has appointed Democratic Representative Paul Tonka of New York to serve in her place. This is followed by Morning Hour debate, where Representatives may present speeches that are up to five minutes in length on whatever subject they choose. These morning hours are held on Mondays and Tuesdays, an hour and a half before the House convenes. Republican Ilena Ros-Lehtinen of Florida has the first time slot on this day, choosing to give a human interest story on female empowerment.
The House then goes through its opening procedures, which include a prayer. There is then time for the Representatives to give one minute speeches. Much of the rest of the session is filled with debate and votes. The below video shows a clip from the debates. The first speaker is Representative Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado, who is arguing in favor of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization act, which is meant to preserve the culture and status of Native Hawaiians through work with the government.
Representative Polis has thirty minutes reserved for the purpose of debate, but only uses about five of those minutes. At the end of his speech he “reserves the balance of his time”, presumably so that he may further his case as he deems necessary. All of this is confirmed by the Speaker. It is notable that the House has its own rules on language. No member directly talks to anyone, avoiding pronouns such as ‘you’ (except, seemably, when giving thanks). Instead, they are referred to as the “Honorable Congressman”, “the Gentleman from Colorado”, etc. The speakers address the Speaker of the House as “Madame Speaker”, and their remarks are addressed to her when they speak, not to their fellow debater.
The next speaker, Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the Republican from Florida, thanks Representative Polis for the time, and then says “I yield myself as much time as I may consume”, another phrase that is embedded in the unique lingo of the House. He voices an opposition to the proposal of recognizing Native Hawaiians as a sovereign governing entity. The bill is passed later that day.
The closing procedures are not as stylized as the opening procedures. The Speaker has already left and once again, as in the morning, someone else is serving interim. Representative Rom Perriello, a Democrat from Virginia, is finishing up his Special Order remarks on Healthcare Reform. Once he is done speaking, the same Representative moves to adjourn. The Speaker Pro Tempore puts it to a vote and the yeas have it, therefore adjourning the Congress until 10 am on the morrow. It is almost midnight when they adjourn, and the chamber is almost empty. When the Speaker Pro Tempore puts the motion of adjournment to vote, we hear only a few voices rise to say yea.
The rules of order for the House of Representatives are not stagnant. In fact, the book The American Congress makes it clear that there are three very important things to keep in mind about policies of the Congress. “(1) Each chamber has its own set of rules, (2) each chamber may change its rules whenever it desires, and (3) each chamber may waive its rules whenever it desires” (3). The House of Representatives approves its rules upon convening the new Congress. It does not feel bound to the rules of the previous Congress. This means amendments to the rules can be made every two years. Even so, the House can decide to ignore some rules that it has adopted upon unanimous consent. Traditionally, the House of Representatives keeps to the Constitution and Jefferson’s Manual, and then also its own House Rules.
Changes have been made over time to the House Rules, however, and they do happen fairly frequently. With the convening of the 111th Congress many new rules and amendments on the old rules were passed. Some rules were revoked, such as a term limit of 6 years as the head of a House committee. In other instances, rules were added or changed. For example, in order to avoid delays made by the minority party motions to recommit a bill “may include instructions only in the form of a direction to report a textual amendment back to the House” (4). In all, over thirty rules were added, amended, or repealed with the opening of the 111th Congress.
The traditional basis of the House procedural rules ensure that sessions are mostly civil and organized, and has remained so for over two centuries. Their flexibility, however, is equally important, and has allowed the House to continue to debate meaningful topics. These two features of the House rules of order ensure that debate is both organized and relevant. The rules that the House follows may often seem trite, such as the stylized way that they address each other, or the specific phrases that they invoke for specific circumstances. However, it is these rules that keep the daily procedures somewhat predictable, allowing for procedures to remain organized amidst their great potential for chaos.
1. Sunlight Foundation. The Life and Death of Congressional Bills in the 110th Congress. 14 April 2010 http://assets.sunlightlabs.com/billvisualization/index.html
2. Jefferson, Thomas. Manual of Parliamentary Practice. 1801.
3. Smith, Steven S., Jason M. Roberts and Ryan J. Vander Wielen. The American Congress. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
4. House of Representatives. "Section-by-Section of Rules Changes -111th Congress." 2009. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Rules. 15 April 2010 http://www.rules.house.gov/111/LegText/111_hres_ruleschnge_smmry.pdf