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Texas Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn’s Bold Move to Increase the Size of the Committee on Rules

January 31, 1961
Texas Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn’s Bold Move to Increase the Size of the Committee on Rules Image courtesy of Library of Congress A World War I veteran, Representative William Colmer of Mississippi served for nearly four decades in the U.S. House of Representatives.
On this date, the House voted in favor of a resolution to increase the Committee on Rules’ membership from 12 to 15. One of the most powerful House committees, the Rules panel regulates the flow of legislation to the House Floor. Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith of Virginia had gained notoriety for his ability to thwart liberal measures from reaching the floor for a vote. Despite holding eight of the 12 committee spots, the Democratic majority in the House failed to win many substantive legislative victories during Smith’s tenure as chairman. He and William Colmer of Mississippi—two Southern Dixiecrats—joined forces with four Republican members to create a deadlock on the committee. Frustrated by Chairman Smith’s ability to bottleneck much social legislation, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas sought to end the impasse by changing House rules to add three spots (two majority and one minority) to the committee. On January 18, 1961, two days before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Speaker Rayburn met with the Democratic Caucus to present a measure to enlarge the committee. With little fanfare, the caucus approved the plan by a voice vote, ensuring its delivery to the floor for a full House vote. During debate, detractors of House Res. 127 likened the measure to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s effort to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937. Smith downplayed any ill feelings between the Speaker and he, but remarked, “When I am asked to pledge aid to the passage of any resolution or bill in this House that I am conscientiously opposed to, I would not yield my conscience and my right to vote in this House to any person or any Member or under any conditions.” Greeted enthusiastically by the crowded galleries who came to witness the historic proceedings, Rayburn defended his plan in a rare speech on the House Floor. “I think this House should be allowed on great measures to work its will and it cannot work its will if the Committee on Rules is so constituted as not to allow the House to pass on those things.” In a dramatic 217 to 212 vote, Rayburn and the Democratic leadership won a narrow but significant victory. The next day, Congressmen Carl Elliott of Alabama, B.F. Sisk of California, and Elmer Hoffman of Illinois joined the committee.

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