“Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.”
The U.S. House of Representatives is governed by an ever-expanding matrix of rules and precedents that have been accumulating every year since the very first Congress in 1789. The Constitution says little about the internal governing structure of the House other than that it “may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” That vague allowance enables the House to create and maintain both its legislative processes and rules guiding the personal behavior of its Members. Like many of Congress’ earliest customs, the House derived its initial rules from two main sources: the British Parliament and the colonial legislatures in British North America.
Although the Constitution is mum when it comes to specific House Rules, it articulates certain guidelines that define the structure of the House. One of those requires every Member of the House to be re-elected every two years. Each House term is finite with clear beginning and end dates, meaning that the House must reconstitute itself every two years. New Members come to the House representing new constituencies with new expectations. Because these biennial elections infuse the House with different people and ideas so often, the House continually updates its legislative protocols and its code of conduct. At the beginning of each Congress, the House must therefore deliberate and adopt a new rules package.
The rules of the House also include Jefferson's Manual—a guide to parliamentary practice that Thomas Jefferson compiled for his own use as President of the Senate at the turn of the 19th century—which the House incorporated into its own rules in 1837.
Underpinning everything is a vast body of precedent in the House usually established one of two ways: either by the decisions of Speakers and presiding officers on parliamentary inquiries, or by long custom and tradition. The House has recorded and published these decisions in an edited series: Hinds’ Precedents, Cannon’s Precedents, Deschler’s Precedents, Deschler-Brown Precedents, Deschler-Brown-Johnson-Sullivan Precedents—each named for the House Parliamentarian (the chief rules keeper) who compiled them. The most recent volume, Precedents of the United States House of Representatives, was published in 2018.
This Edition for Educators highlights the development of House Rules and the people in charge of overseeing them.
Discipline and Punishment
The Constitution grants the House broad power to discipline its Members for acts that range from criminal misconduct to violations of internal House Rules. While the constitutional authority to punish a Member who engages in “disorderly Behaviour” is intended, in part, as an instrument of individual rebuke, it serves principally to protect the reputation of the institution and to preserve the dignity of its proceedings.
The Parliamentarian is a nonpartisan official appointed by the Speaker of the House to render objective assistance on legislative and parliamentary procedure to the House of Representatives. During proceedings on the floor, the Parliamentarian sits to the Speaker’s right on the dais. The Parliamentarian’s office is responsible for answering all questions about rules and procedure in the House of Representatives.
Thomas Brackett Reed
Wielding a razor sharp wit, Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine spent years in the minority using various political tricks to stall the passage of legislation. Reed was elected Speaker in the 51st Congress (1889–1891) and immediately proceeded to end the tactics the minority party had used for years. Reed’s overhaul of House procedures, dubbed “Reed’s Rules,” expanded the authority of the Speaker and paved the way for the powerful Speakership of Joseph Gurney Cannon.
One of Hawaii’s first Representatives, Spark Matsunaga relied on a personal friendship with Speaker John McCormack to win a seat on the influential Rules Committee during his third term in the House. Matsunaga developed a deep understanding of House Rules, eventually co-writing a book titled Rulemakers of the House, detailing the evolution of the Rules Committee. Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana exclaimed, “It’s getting to the point where you have to see Sparky Matsunaga to get a bill passed around here.”
The Creation of the Formal House Rules and the House Rules Committee
On April 7, 1789, after just five days of discussion, the House Select Committee on Rules unveiled the first set of parliamentary guidelines that would eventually become the formal House Rules. They established the function of the Speaker, outlined the legislative process, set parameters for general debate, and outlined the function of the Committee of the Whole.
A Breach of Privileges
The House “Gag Rule”
On May 26, 1836, during the 24th Congress (1835–1837), the U.S. House of Representatives instituted the “gag rule,” the first instance of what would become a long-standing practice that forbade the House from considering anti-slavery petitions. Representative James Hammond of South Carolina first proposed the gag rule in December 1835. Speaker James K. Polk referred the issue to a special committee to resolve the problem which tied up floor debate for weeks.
The Holman Rule
On January 17, 1876, by a vote of 156 to 102, the U.S. House of Representatives first adopted the Holman Rule that sought to institutionalize reductions in government spending through changes in House rules. Proposed by the “watchdog of the Treasury,” Representative William S. Holman of Indiana, it modified House Rule 120 which prohibited appropriations “for any expenditure not previously authorized by law.”
House Rules and Emergency Recess
Former House Parliamentarian Charlie Johnson discusses the House Rules and emergency recesses as part of the 9/11 oral history project.
Rules Committee Expansion: Part One
In 1961, Members sought to break the power of Southern Democrats who bottled up civil rights legislation in the House Rules Committee. The first of two videos on the 1961 expansion of the Rules Committee features former House Page George W. Andrews III (whose parents both served in Congress). The second video on the debate itself can be found here.
Dress Code for Women Members
Muftiah McCartin, first woman to hold the title of assistant House parliamentarian, recounts the issue of a dress code in the House of Representatives, and where things differed for men and women in the early 1980s.
House Rules Committee
The Rules Committee and its counsel, Sherman Whipple, met in January 1917 to investigate allegations of insider trading on Wall Street.
Petition to Rescind the Gag Rule
This 1838 petition, from a group of women in Brookline, Massachusetts, asks the House to rescind the “gag rule” on anti-slavery petitions on the basis that it was “an assumption of authority at once dangerous and destructive to the fundamental principles of republican government, to the rights of minorities, to the sovereignty of the People, and to the Union of these United States.” The gag rule was not lifted until 1844.
(Congress)Men without Hats
British traveler Henry B. Fearon cast a critical gaze from the House Gallery across the frothy sea of nearly 200 Representatives of the 15th Congress (1817–1819). Fearon observed in 1818, almost parenthetically, “at once members and visitors wear their hats.” Of all the sights, sounds, and mannerisms of the U.S. Congress, hat-wearing legislators seemed the least exotic to an Englishman. Donning hats on the House Floor harkened to an ancient practice in the House of Commons, where members wore hats to express their independence from the Crown.
Father Knows Best
Like so many American legislative traditions, the idea of a “Father of the House” derived from the British House of Commons, where the honorific title seems to have been applied as early as the mid-eighteenth century. The first-known usage in the U.S. House occurred in 1816, when Virginia’s John Randolph referred to Richard Stanford of North Carolina as the “father of the House, as being the oldest member.”
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory