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Congress-ese: House Rules Committee

Bryan Fisher,
Washington Legislative Office
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September 2, 2008

The unassuming House Committee on Rules, with the innocuous sounding charge to “arrange the order of business and decide how and in what way certain measures shall be considered,” holds almost unassailable control of what legislation passes and what, more aptly, does not. Partisanship, debate, and colorful characters — sound and fury — hold our attention, but are not where the real work of Congress is done. It is the work of the House Committee on Rules that determines legislative outcomes.

Almost no bill can be considered, amended, passed, recommitted or sent to conference committee with the Senate without the Committee on Rules’ permission. In fact, the committee determines which members can speak on what issue, how much time they control, who can offer amendments and precisely when a vote will occur on those bills, resolutions, conference reports and amendments it deems “great and important.”

But make no mistake — this body is not independent. It is dominated by the speaker of the House. Its membership is highly partisan (9-to-4 in favor of the majority) and appointed by the speaker. It exists to facilitate the prompt and successful consideration of the speaker’s — i.e. not necessarily the majority party’s — priorities.

Some speakers have ruled with firmer hands than others. Speaker Newt Gingrich took the practice to new heights—or depths, depending on your viewpoint—by using the rules committee to make wholesale changes in bills if he didn’t like how they came out of the committees of jurisdiction.

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