American Democracy

Comments on House Rules Tables: In Comparative Perspective
Donald R. Wolfensberger

Updated January 2023

Most major legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives goes through the Committee on Rules that uses “special rules,” which are simple resolutions, e.g., H. Res. 123, to set the terms of debate and amendment on the House floor. Minor, non-controversial bills, on the other hand, may be considered by unanimous consent or under a suspension of the rules –a process that allows for 40-minutes of debate, no amendments, and requires a two-thirds vote for passage.

Special rules are debatable for one-hour, half of which is allocated by the majority party manager of the rule to a minority party member of the Rules Committee. The rule is then voted on after the “previous question” is ordered (do we want to debate this rule further and even change it?). Adoption of the special rule then allows for the privileged consideration of the bill in question, at which point the bill’s authorizing committee chairman or a designee and a minority party member of the committee manage the debate time and oversee the amendment process.

The special rule may provide for one of three kinds of amendment processes on the authorizing committee bill: (a) an open rule, that allows any House member to offer a germane amendment; (b) a structured rule, that allows for consideration only of those amendments specified in the Rules Committee report on the rule; or, (c) a closed rule that prevents any floor amendments from being offered. The Rules Committee has not reported an open rule since the 114th Congress (2015-16), meaning all bills considered under a special rule over the last three Congresses have either been under structured or closed rules (see Table 1.). In the most recent Congress, the 117th Congress (2021-22), a majority of the special rules, 60%, were closed rules, and the rest, 40%, were structured rules.

The other tables in this comparative study delve into complex aspects of special rules. Tables 2(a) and 2(b) examine what are called, “self-executing rules” which provide that, upon adoption of the special rule the House will have already automatically adopted an amendment to the bill so that it will not require a separate vote after general debate is concluded. The amendment to be automatically adopted is one that either has been recommended by the committee reporting the bill (“committee”), or one that has originated in the Rules Committee (“new”). 

As the data shows, self-executing rules have been growing in number over time, with 68% of all rules in the 117th containing self-executing provisions (Table 2(a)). Likewise, the percent of new amendments being self-executed now comprise the vast majority of self-executing rules, 88% v. 12%  for committee amendments.

Table 3. lists all the individual bills considered under special rules in the most recent, 117th Congress, differentiating between reported (R) and non-reported (NR) bills, and whether they were considered under a structured (S) or closed (C) rule.

Finally, Table 5 compares the numbers and percentages of unreported bills considered under special rules, from the 109th Congress (2005-06) to the 117th Congress (2021-22), and what types of rules they were considered under. Again, the trend has been toward more and more closed rules for unreported bills, comprising 67% of all closed rules. And Table 6. lists all the unreported measures considered in the 117th Congress.

Conclusions: The Rules Committee is frequently referred to as “the Speaker’s committee.”  That’s because the majority party leadership tightly controls the process under which bills are brought to the House floor. It is obvious from the data trends revealed in these tables that the leadership is exercising tighter and tighter control over what bills are considered and under what procedures, with more unreported bills being brought to the floor, circumventing the committee markup, deliberation, and reporting procedures. And, more and more bills are being considered under tightly circumscribed amendment procedures –most with no floor amendments being allowed. Ultimately, though, Members have the final say on whether they support these trends. And, most special rules are adopted along party-line votes, meaning majority party Members support their leaders’ scheduling decisions.
View previous House Rules data here.

View 117th Rules Data

Additional Publications by Year:

Suhay, E., Klašnja, M., & Rivero, G. (2021). Ideology of Affluence: Explanations for inequality and economic policy preferences among rich americans. The Journal of Politics, 83(1), 367-380. doi:10.1086/709672

Edelson C. (2020) How to Keep the Republic (Before It’s Too Late): Why a New Constitution Is Necessary to Strengthen Liberal Democracy in the United States. In: Lamb C., Neiheisel J. (eds) Presidential Leadership and the Trump Presidency. The Evolving American Presidency. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Chris Edelson (2020) Sounding the Alarm: Trump’s Emergency Declaration at the Southern Border and Constitutional Failure, Congress & the Presidency, 47:2, 224-254, DOI: 10.1080/07343469.2019.1701584

Suhay, Elizabeth & Klasnja, Marko & Rivero, Gonzalo. (2020). Ideology of Affluence: Rich Americans' Explanations for Inequality and Attitudes toward Redistribution. The Journal of Politics. 83. 10.1086/709672. 

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Leighley, J., & Oser, J. (2018). Representation in an Era of Political and Economic Inequality: How and When Citizen Engagement Matters. Perspectives on Politics, 16(2), 328-344. doi:10.1017/S1537592717003073

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