How the House Rules Committee started multitasking (and made House lawmaking even more centralized)

During most of the modern polarized era, the outlines of the House lawmaking process have remained the same. For major legislation, the Rules Committee issues a special rule that governs floor procedure for each bill, and the House debates and votes on the rule before taking up the bill. The majority has crafted much more restrictive and complex rules, but at least through 2010, leadership nearly always followed the norm that a stand-alone special rule governs each major measure. Under this practice, the House can debate the procedural choices for each bill, allowing the minority a focused opportunity to critique majority procedure.

Over the last decade, however, the Rules Committee rapidly moved away from the one-bill-one-rule norm. To understand the new approach, consider one rule (H. Res. 577) adopted by the House in September 2019. Under it, the House took up two separate bills that addressed major concerns about the treatment of immigrants by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Introduced by two freshman Democrats, these measures were highly salient and also divisive between the parties. In addition to those two bills, the rule also governed a resolution calling for the immediate release to Congress of the whistleblower report in the Trump administration’s Ukraine scandal. The resolution was time-sensitive and received considerable attention, but unlike the two immigration bills, it was ultimately uncontroversial.

Prior to the 112th Congress (2011-12), each of these measures would have been considered under a separate rule. But, starting in that Congress, the Rules Committee began regularly issuing rules that combine provisions for considering two or more measures in a single resolution. These multiple-measures rules made up about a quarter of the rules issued in the 112th Congress, rising to about half by the 114th (2015-16). The shift was the work of a Republican majority, and Democrats sharply criticized the practice. But, as with many majoritarian innovations in the House, the minority party followed the new precedent upon taking the majority. Under Democratic control in the 116th Congress (2019-20), about 45 percent of House special rules involved multiple measures.

Recent research I’ve conducted examines how the leadership has used this new tool in the majority-party tool kit, and finds that the use of multiple-measures bills relates to partisan goals—as well as to the majority’s need to manage increasingly scarce floor time. Data from 2011 through 2018, for example, shows that bills brought to the floor under multiple-measures rules saw more conflict between the parties, as well as greater majority cohesion compared with bills governed by stand-alone rules. Voting on the rules themselves followed a similar pattern: adoption of multiple-measures rules involved more party conflict than other rules.

Although the majority uses multiple-measures rules regularly for unrelated bills, the procedure is often used to bring closely related measures to the floor in the same time frame, presumably for majority messaging purposes. And the majority party seems to use this grouped, streamlined process to provide an opportunity for rank-and-file members to bring their bills to the floor, as appeared to be the case with the 2019 immigration bills. Among bills governed by special rules, those sponsored by rank-and-file members were significantly more likely to appear in multiple-measures rules when compared with bills sponsored by chairs of standing committees.

Aside from these majority-party purposes, the leadership also appears to use the rules to manage the constraints of scarce floor time. Hours in session reached new lows after 2010, which pressured leadership to schedule debate and votes. This suggests that time pressures may motivate the use of multiple-measures rules. Moreover, bills in multiple-measures rules are somewhat more common in the second session of a Congress, and bills from multiple-measures rules are also considered closer to the end of the first session in comparison with bills in stand-alone rules. The shift to multiple-measures rules, then, reflects two familiar trends—increasing centralization of information and process with majority leadership, and increasing pressures on member time (both legislative and non-legislative).

Although the loss of the one-bill-one-rule norm now seems widely accepted, its death is still costly. As the minority Rules members noted in a 2015 letter protesting the change, multiple-measures rules require members to vote “on a set of complex unrelated procedures, some of which they support and some of which they oppose.” At the same time, deliberation suffers when “arguments for and against multiple measures are interspersed, which leads to disjointed, fragmented, and often confusing debates.”

In turn, these rules and the measures they control are more divisive and more partisan than other rules and major legislation. In the end, the multiple-measures rule enhances the control of the majority leadership, while further limiting the agency of individual members and obscuring the majority’s choices over process.

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Topics: Committees & Caucuses
Scott Meinke
Scott Meinke is professor of Political Science at Bucknell University and chair of the Department of Political Science.  He received his Ph.D. in Amer...