The Rules Committee by the numbers

Greg Nash


Poring over tables filled with numbers can lead to acute MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over). However, when they are tables you have created that reflect on outcomes you have professionally lived, the numbers come to life and begin telling their stories.

I came to the House in 1969 as a legislative assistant and retired in 1997 as chief of staff of the House Rules Committee. Over my nearly three decades in the House and the ensuing two decades in the think tank world, I have witnessed dramatic changes in the House as an institution, and with it, changes in the role and powers of the Rules Committee.

The Rules Committee has, for the most part, been the majority leadership’s gatekeeper for sending major bills from other committees to the House floor for privileged consideration under a variety of procedural options. These are tucked into a “simple resolution” known as an “order of business resolution” or “special rule.” The options range broadly from a completely open floor amendment process (an open rule), to one that denies any and all floor amendments (a closed rule), with all manner of other bells and whistles available in between.

I have recounted the evolution of the House and its Rules Committee in two books written since leaving the Hill: “Congress and the People: Deliberative Democracy on Trial” (2000), and, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays” (2018).  

To summarize my findings from both books: The House has become much more partisan and more closed to broad member participation in the legislative process.  This has two destructive consequences: (1) members are feeling increasingly marginalized and irrelevant due to rote party-voting pressures in committee and on the floor; and (2) their constituents are turned-off by all the partisan bickering and gridlock. Taken together, this is a major democratic disconnect.

In the appendices to my two books, I include Rules Committee tables that span several decades in support of my findings. Those tables are now updated to include the first session of the 117th Congress (2021). My tabulations are published every six months on the website of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) found here.

What jumps out at first-time viewers of Table 1 is the contrast over time between the number and percent of open amendment rules, structured rules (which allow only for specified amendments), and closed, no-amendment rules.  In the 103rd Congress (1993-94), the last Democratic House after 40 consecutive years in power before the GOP takeover in 1994, open rules comprised 44 percent of total rules, structured rules 47 percent, and closed rules, only 9 percent.  

One of the issues Republicans ran against in the early 1990s was the practice by which Democrats curtailed opportunities for minority floor amendments. Republicans promised to do better when they took control, and, initially they did, boosting open rules in the ensuing three Congresses (104th-106th) to over 50 percent. They reduced structured rule percentages to around 30 percent, but still increased closed rules upward to 22 percent.  

Republicans would retain control of the House for six consecutive congresses (104th-109th) before Democrats regained majority status for the next four years (2007-2010). However, as Table 1 reveals, by its fourth Congress in power (the 107th), Republicans had slipped well below 50 percent in open rules to 37 percent, relying more on structured and closed rules — 41 and 22 percent respectively. And, by their last four years in the majority before the Democratic takeover in 2007, open rules under Republicans declined to 26 and 19 percent, while closed rules increased to 28 percent and 32 percent, respectively.

To cut a longer story short, these trend-lines continued under the Democrats for the next two congresses (110th and 111th), under Republicans for their reign over the next four congresses (112th-115th), and now, under Democrats for the past one and one-half congresses.  

In fact, even before Republicans relinquished control of the House in 2018, they were producing no open amendment rules and closed rules rose to 56 percent of the total.  Not to be outdone, Democrats have produced no open rules at all over their last three years in the majority (1919-2021), and their closed rule percentages have risen to 65 percent.  

It is misleading to put too much emphasis on the number of floor amendments being allowed by the majority leadership. This over-emphasis obscures the precept that major legislation should not be substantially rewritten on the House floor. Committees remain the principal source of legislative expertise where alternative policy solutions are debated and voted through a robust amendment process.  

That committee model of legislating, however, is being undermined by a disturbing trend revealed in Table 5. It shows that the number and percent of unreported bills that are granted special rules by the Rules Committee is growing. Keep in mind that in the past it was almost unheard, except in emergency situations, that a major bill would be granted a special rule if it had not first been reported from committee.  

Yet over the last nine congresses the percent of unreported bills with special rules has climbed from 27 percent in the 109th Congress to 52 percent in the current Congress, perhaps due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown that has forced committees to operate semi-remotely. Nevertheless, even before the pandemic, unreported bills were hovering around one-third of all measures being granted special rules, regardless of which party was in the majority.

I once observed that, “The best thing about the ‘good old days’ are our fond memories of things that never were” (Disclosure: I have sometimes been guilty of recalling a golden age of openness and deliberation). Still, the data from the Rules Committee’s work over the last several decades speaks for itself: “Facts are stubborn things.”

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.


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