When the House convened a quorum on April 1, 1789, it proceeded to the election of a Speaker and Clerk, and then approved the appointment of a committee chaired by Representative Elias Boudinot to draft an initial set of rules. These first rules were sparse and allowed substantial freedom to rank and file Members in the relatively small -- 65 Members -- House of Representatives. The openness of the early rules came to be seen as an impediment to adequate and timely scheduling of House business. With increasing workload, combined with an increasing membership (142 following the census of 1800, then 186 following the census of 1810), it became necessary to impose limits on debate.

In 1811, the House adopted the device of using the previous question to cut off debate and vote on a measure. The rule in its early form was clumsy, cutting off debate and blocking action on all pending amendments. In 1840 the House improved the usefulness of the rule by providing that pending amendments be voted on, rather than set aside, when the previous question was ordered. Not until 1860, however, did the House also establish that if the previous question was defeated, consideration of the measure would continue instead of being postponed. The time limits that are now pervasive also began to enter House procedure at this time, with the adoption in 1840 of the rule that no Member speak more than once on any question; in 1841 of the rule limiting recognition to one hour; and in 1847 of the five-minute rule for debating amendments in Committees of the Whole.

From the first, the Committee of the Whole has been a key feature of House floor procedure. In fact, two committees of the whole were established: 1) a Committee of the Whole House, to consider private bills, 2) and a Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union, to consider money bills. Specifically, since 1794, the House has required consideration of revenue, appropriation, and authorization measures by the latter, which has come to be called simply the Committee of the Whole. In Committee of the Whole, in contrast to the House, it was never in order to use the previous question to cut off the amendment process. Accordingly, these liberal debate and amendment rules applicable in the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union served to protect the ability of the House as a whole to work its will, through amendment, on bills involving the power of the purse.

The establishment of different calendars for bills, categories of business privileged at different times in the schedule, and of privileged interruptions to the regular order of business also began in the 19th century. As early as 1820 a rule was adopted creating calendars for the Committees of the Whole. Initially measures that did not need to be considered in the Committee of the Whole were considered upon being reported, but in 1880 a new House Calendar was created for these measures. Initially, House rules provided that the Chamber take up business on each Calendar in the order reported from the committees. The inflexibility of this procedure sometimes made it difficult to reach appropriation bills or other vital measures reported late in a session. The concept of ``privileged business'' evolved in large part to permit certain types of measures to come to the floor over other categories of business considered to be less urgent.

Partisanship and Centralization

The later 19th century was a period of high partisanship, in which a key issue was majority party control versus minority party dilatory tactics. Business in those years was commonly obstructed by such tactics as offering, in alternation, motions to adjourn and to recess, each of which was privileged if business had intervened since it was last offered. Also central to the dilatory practices of the day was the ``disappearing quorum,'' under which minority party members would decline to vote or to respond to quorum calls. This often delayed action when the majority party could not muster a quorum from among its own members. House practice did not permit the Chair to ascertain a quorum by counting until Speaker Thomas B. Reed (R-ME) first did so, against intense minority party protest.

These developments culminated in the adoption of rules pertaining to dilatory issues brought about by Speaker Reed later that year. The chief intent of the rules was to permit a party majority to move legislative business forward by overcoming dilatory tactics; in the words of Reed, the ``object of a parliamentary body is action, not stoppage of action.''1 The rules established that the Speaker could count for a quorum, and for the first time instituted the reduced quorum of 100 in Committee of the Whole. They also eliminated the privilege of the motion to recess and to fix the day in which to adjourn. The changes further permitted the Speaker to exercise discretion in recognition and to rule out dilatory motions, the definitions of which have expanded over the years. In addition, they permitted public bills to be introduced through the ``hopper.'' These ``Reed Rules'' have not been recodified since, and make up part of the framework of House floor procedure today.

The ``Reed Rules'' also instituted modifications in the order of business, first governed by rule in 1811. The 1811 rule was frequently modified during the 19th century to attempt to give the House as much freedom as possible in facilitating action on the most important measures. The 1890 change was designed to enhance the leadership's flexibility in arranging the floor agenda. The Reed changes constituted one step in a continuing effort during that period to develop procedures that would, in a common phrase of the time, ``permit the House to go at once to any measure on its calendars.''

By the late 19th century, the House had also begun a practice of adopting a ``special order'' making consideration of a specific measure in order, under suspension of the rules. This proceeding, however, required a two-thirds vote; thus, the House later began to create special orders by adopting resolutions reported by the Committee on Rules, which required only an ordinary majority vote. These resolutions later evolved into the modern form of special rules.

During the same period, several developments in practice also increased central coordination of how measures were considered and debated on the House floor. This period saw a shift toward placing time for debate under the control of managers, who would yield time to individual Members. Earlier, it had been more common for Members to be successively recognized from the Chair in their own right, for up to one hour, in general debate in Committee of the Whole as well as in the House. It also became common for the manager of a measure being considered in the House to move the previous question after the first hour of debate, which the manager controlled. Since the manager could decline to yield for amendment during the first hour, and since adoption of the previous question precluded any further debate or amendment, this practice had the effect of preventing the amendment of virtually all measures considered in the House (rather than the Committee of the Whole) under this procedure.

Decentralization and its Sequels

Following 1890, on the basis of the ``Reed Rules'' and their subsequent development, the majority party, through the Speaker, established virtually complete control of the floor agenda. The ``revolt'' of 1910 against Speaker Joseph Cannon (R-IL) represented an attempt to mitigate this central control and to restore more legislative opportunities to individual rank and file Members. As a result of these events, the Speaker, who until then customarily chaired the Committee on Rules, was forbidden to serve thereon. In the same Congress, the Consent Calendar, Calendar Wednesday, and the first form of discharge rule were added to the rules.

The ``revolt'' removed the Speaker from the committee selection process and led to the almost universal application of seniority in the selection of committee chairs. This rules change also resulted in the decentralization to committees of much control of the Chamber's agenda. It increased the autonomy of the committee chairs and members, freed from the power of the Speaker to remove them at will from their previous assignments. Ultimately, the committee leaders and members achieved a measure of autonomy from party leaders' control that was not curtailed until the 1970s.

In particular, although from 1917 onward the majority party nearly always took at least a 2:1 ratio of seats on the Rules Committee, during periods of Democratic control the majority leadership did not always exercise effective control of the panel. Instead, the distribution of senior Democrats assigned to the Committee permitted the so-called ``conservative coalition'' of Republicans and Southern Democrats to control the panel's output, and therewith an important portion of the floor agenda.

Not until the post Cannon era did the Committee on Rules start to develop ``special rules'' in their modern form. Increasingly, they included provisions altering the normal rules of the House for considering and amending measures. ``Closed rules,'' prohibiting all floor amendments, were well developed before the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act opened the era of the ``modern Congress'' (see below). Nevertheless, most of the development of today's wide variety of ``restrictive rules'' permitting or forbidding only certain amendments, and of rules waiving specified points of order, occurred only thereafter.

The system of decentralized control continued until the 1940s, when Speaker Sam Rayburn began a process of recentralizing authority in the Speakership. One example of this process was the gradual replacement of Calendar Wednesday by suspension of the rules as the most common procedure for considering measures of secondary importance. Calendar Wednesday leaves the choice of measures to be considered in the hands of committee chairmen, whereas the Speaker controls recognition for motions to suspend the rules. In addition, measures considered on Calendar Wednesday are subject to amendment from the floor, while those by suspension of the rules are not.

A key step in the process of recentralization was not reached until the majority leadership regained effective control of the Committee on Rules in the 1960s. This control was achieved in part through the expansion of the Committee and the replacement of more conservative Members upon their retirement. The leadership's ability to maintain this control was reinforced later, in the 1970s, when the Speaker gained direct authority to select the Committee's chair and Democratic Members.


1 Hinds, Asher C. Precedents of the House of Representatives. Washington, U.S. G.P.O., 1907, vol. V, sec. 5713.

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