Debate to Expand the Rules Committee

Why do supporters of packing the Rules Committee, such as Reps. James William Trimble and Sam Rayburn, justify the need to increase the number of members of the Rules Committee? What is their end goal, in terms of changing how the House operates? How does Rep. Howard W. “Judge” Smith, as well as his supporters, defend the role of the Rules Committee? Are their arguments for delaying the legislative process, in order to filter out bad proposals, convincing?
How do the arguments of Rep. Trimble and Rep. Rayburn, about the need for the majority to be able to work its will, resemble the same arguments of Thomas Brackett Reed and Joseph Cannon for party leadership (Rules of the House of Representatives, Obstructions in the National House and A Deliberative Body, and Speech on Party Leadership in Congress)? Does this mean that there was some wisdom in the earlier attempts to give party leaders power over otherwise independent committees? In what ways are the arguments for packing the Rules Committee similar to those for the 21-day rule (Debate on repeal of the 21-day rule)? What does this reveal about the tension created by the decision to weaken party leadership in the Revolt of 1910 (The Revolt of 1910 Against Speaker Joseph Cannon)?  

Although they held the majority, Democrats in the late 1950s were prevented from passing liberal legislation on matters such as civil rights, education, and public housing. The source of this frustration was Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith. A Dixiecrat from Virginia, Smith was a conservative Southern Democrat whose long tenure in office gave him seniority over other members of the committee. Since seniority was the factor that determined a committee chair, and that position had immense power during this period, Smith was able to oppose even the majority of his own party that advocated for liberal policies. The Rules Committee had twelve seats—eight Democrats and four Republicans—but repeatedly failed to submit measures to the floor because Smith and William Colmer (another Dixiecrat) coordinated with the four Republicans to thwart the formation of a majority. Speaker Sam Rayburn, a Democrat from Texas, proposed a House resolution to increase the membership of the Rules Committee from twelve members to fifteen, which would have increased the number of liberal members on the committee. Ultimately, the debate over the proposal raised issues about the right of the numerical majority of a majority party to control the policies of the House, rather than providing power to long-standing members who served as committee chairs.

—Joseph Postell

Source: Congressional Record, 87th Congress, 1st Session, Jan. 31, 1961. Vol. 107, pp. 1573–1589.

[The House proceeded to consider a rule to “pack” the Rules Committee by expanding it to fifteen members.]

Mr. TRIMBLE.[1] . . . Mr. Speaker, this is one assignment that I did not seek.

I have deep affection for all parties involved in this controversy, and I have deep respect for the rules of the House.

I am a Democrat. I have always fought my political battles in the battle-scarred uniform of the Democratic Party, and I shall continue to do that. However, I have a firm belief in the position that with the majority rests the responsibility. If the Republican Party were in the majority here today and had the Speaker and they were seeking some means of assuring the leadership leeway to conform to their full responsibilities, as the majority I would vote with them on a similar resolution.

We are a two-party system. My prayer is that never in this great land of ours will we become so confused and mixed up with different parties that we will become the victim of a lack of authority to function as a majority that exists in some of the states of Europe and of Asia. . . .

Mr. Speaker, I urge the adoption of the resolution.

Mr. BROWN.[2] . . . Mr. Speaker, naturally I have not been too happy in recent weeks over the misinformation, misrepresentation, falsehoods, and slander which have been directed against the committee of which I have had the honor to serve for 18 years. There has been much said that is absolutely untrue and not according to the facts. Therefore, I think, Mr. Speaker, that this is the time and place to look at the record.

This resolution was designed and introduced for one purpose and one purpose only, to pack the Rules Committee so as to give either one individual, or a limited few, the power to completely control all of its decisions and actions.

It is exactly similar to the 1937 attempt of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to pack the Supreme Court so as to obtain the favorable decisions he desired.[3]

The fallacious argument has been made that it is necessary to pack the Rules Committee to guarantee that certain major administration bills can receive House consideration. Such bills most discussed are minimum wage, medical care for the needy aged, Federal aid for education, housing, and depressed areas. While it is charged House consideration of measures dealing with these same subjects was blocked by the Rules Committee during the last Congress, which charge is absolutely false, for House bills on each of those subjects did reach the floor and were actually approved by the House.

There is no reason to believe that the Rules Committee, as now constituted, will or can prevent any important legislation from receiving consideration by the House, for the House of Representatives can always work its will on legislative matters.

Wednesday of each week is designated as Calendar Wednesday, at which time the chairman of any House legislative committee can call up a bill for immediate consideration without obtaining a rule to make such action in order.

By a simple majority of the membership signing a discharge petition any bill can be called up for prompt consideration by the full House.

Any measure can also be called up under suspension of the rules procedure and acted upon promptly, providing the Speaker approves.

Bills and resolutions from the Committees on Ways and Means, Appropriations, and House Administration, are usually brought to the floor for action without a rule.

In my nearly a quarter of a century of service here I have never known of a single instance, when the House leadership desired a bill to be brought to a House vote, that such measure was not voted upon.

So actually it is only power which is being sought by this resolution—power to prevent any individual Member, as well as any minority, from a vote or free expression on legislative bills. This is power no little group, no Speaker, no president should seek. This is power no little group, no Speaker, no president, should have.

Mr. SMITH of Virginia.[4] . . . [A] lot of people around here these days talk about this being a matter of a quarrel between the Speaker and myself. I have served with the Speaker of this House for 30 years. I have no quarrel with the Speaker. He has a right to his convictions; I claim the right to mine. That is an American right, and that is my duty as I regard it in the House of Representatives, to speak and to vote your convictions and not the convictions of someone else. . . . So, if there is any quarrel between the Speaker and myself it is all on his side, and I say that in the kindest spirit and I hope it will not be misconstrued.

When I make this pledge to the Speaker and to the members of this House, it is a pledge I made when I first became chairman of the Rules Committee. That is, I will cooperate with the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives just as long and just as far as my conscience will permit me to go. Some of these gentlemen who are laughing maybe do not understand what a conscience is. They are entitled to that code, and I think I am entitled to mine. . . .

Now, here is what I have agreed to do. All of the five bills which the president has announced as his program for this session, which are five bills that I am very much opposed to and will oppose on the floor, I will not oppose his program, as so far announced, in the Committee on Rules. That is a pledge. I have agreed that I will support a resolution that will take from the Committee on Rules the power to prevent bills from going to conference. I have asked that these proposals be submitted to the president to see if it met his requirement, but that request was refused. Everything that I have proposed has been refused. . . .

Now, you have before you this resolution, and what I cannot understand—and it is a very great mystery to me—is what more do you want? You have a resolution to pack or purge or oppose the Committee on Rules laid before you right now. If this matter were left dormant on the calendar, it would remain there for 2 years, and if this committee did something that the House thought it should not do, then you would have cause to complain and could call it up any day and say this committee is doing wrong and “We told you they were going to do wrong, and therefore we will call up the resolution.” What better position would you want to be in than that? If that committee refused to give a rule, they could bring the resolution up. Now, I wish somebody would answer that. What do they want? Is it an effort merely to humiliate one chairman of one committee in this House? Well, if it is, nobody can humiliate me except the people who have elected me to Congress 16 consecutive times. . . .

Mr. ARENDS.[5] [W]hat is the purpose of this resolution? It is obvious. The obvious purpose of this resolution is to “pack” the committee. It is proposed here to convert a screening committee, a senior deliberative committee, into a “rubberstamp” committee for whatever our new president may propose and subject to the dictates of our Speaker.

It has also been argued that the Rules Committee has delayed bills being brought to the floor. I do not know of a single measure demanding emergency action that the committee delayed or that has had ill effect on the nation’s welfare. It has been my experience that the committee has always acted expeditiously on anything of an emergency nature. . . .

Other than in emergency instances, nothing is lost but much is gained by delay. It enables us and the people we represent to know exactly what is proposed and why. There is an adage that “haste makes waste.” By not acting hastily this committee has on many occasions done a great service to us and the country. John Nance Garner, former vice president, once was reported to have said, “The country never suffers from the things that Congress fails to do.”

That well applies to many of the proposals we hear will be presented to us in the near future.

Mr. Speaker, I am opposed to this resolution. I cannot vote for that which is nothing more or less than “a go signal” for any and all legislation, and a move which, in the long run might well haunt those of us who seek to retain the House as a great deliberative body.

Mr. HALLECK. . . . [6] I have had an avalanche of mail, most of it handwritten, from people opposed to this resolution. And why are they opposed to it? They are concerned about rash and reckless platform promises repeated in the campaign, some of it added to by some of the task force reports.

. . . As I read that mail from the people of this country, right-thinking people by the millions, I am convinced they are afraid that this effort signals a collapse of the opposition to such unwise measures. They are afraid the floodgates will be let down and we will be overwhelmed with bad legislation.

As a former member of the Committee on Rules and twice the majority leader and now minority leader, I know because I have worked there that the Committee on Rules performs a most constructive service for the members of this body and for the people of this country. I am submitting that the Committee on Rules time and again has responded by granting rules that individual members of the committee did not want; and I know by experience, I have observed, that a determined majority leadership can get action in the Committee on Rules and can get measures to the floor if it wants to. Certainly the Committee on Rules is not obligated to report to this floor every bill that comes before it; and as I look around I see members who I am quite sure are thankful for that. At the same time, it is not the province of the Committee on Rules to roadblock legislation that ought to be seriously considered. The safeguards against such indiscriminate action are well known.

In the final analysis, speaking for myself, I have no fear of bringing any measure to the floor to be debated and considered here that reasonably ought to come on the floor of the House of Representatives. But I want to say on my responsibility that I carried here on the majority and minority sides, there have been many times I have said, “Thank God for the Committee on Rules,” from the standpoint of the welfare of the country I love and serve.

We have had every reasonable assurance here today that proper measures that ought to be considered will come to the floor of the House of Representatives, subject to full debate and action.

I am afraid what we are being asked to do here today under this resolution could signal the breakdown of a very vital part of the legislative machinery, the Committee on Rules which has for many years enabled the House of Representatives to conduct its essential business in orderly fashion.

Mr. RAYBURN.[7] Mr. Speaker, whether you vote with me today or not, I want to say that I appreciate your uniform kindness and courtesy that has been displayed toward me. . . . This issue, in my mind, is a simple one.

We have elected to the presidency a new leader. He is going to have a program that he thinks will be in the interest of and for the benefit of the American people.

I think he demonstrated on yesterday that we are neither in good shape domestically or in the foreign field. He wants to do something about that to improve our situation in the United States of America and in the world.

Now, they speak about these five bills. The Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House met with the president of the United States this morning. He is going to send 10 or 12 messages to the House of Representatives in the next few weeks that he thinks are vital to the welfare, the prosperity, and the well-being of our country. The House of Representatives is elected every 2 years, and after the legislative committees hold hearings, after executive session, when every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed, and when the chairman comes to the Committee on Rules—and I do not say Rules Committee, because that is not the proper designation; it is the Committee on Rules—comes to the leadership of the House and wants a rule after all of that consideration, I think that the Committee on Rules should grant that rule whether its membership is for the bill or not. 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.

Mr. YATES.[8] Mr. Speaker, the resolution which the House votes on today presents such an elementary proposition for democratizing the procedure of the House that one wonders how it is possible for any Member to oppose it.

Power corrupts—

Said Lord Acton—

and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

From time to time when the ebb and flow of control in the House is moved from one power center to another, and where control became too autocratic, the House has taken action to remedy the situation. In 1910 too much control was centered in the Speaker and on March 19 of that year, the Democratic Party and a group of insurgent Republicans broke the iron grip within which the Speaker held the House through his membership on and domination over a five-man Committee on Rules.[9]

Today, too, Mr. Speaker, we fight a system which has deposited too much power in the Committee on Rules, power which prevents the House from workings its will on many occasions. Over the years, this committee has frustrated the will of the majority by refusing to grant rules on major legislation or by insisting that bills pending before it be amended in substantial respects as conditions to the granting of a rule. These are privileges which were never given nor intended to be given to the committee, for the Committee on Rules is supposed to be a traffic artery, not a dead-end street.

Passage of this resolution will not destroy the function of the Rules Committee. Rather, it will only temper in measure the power that the committee now possesses. Freedom to appraise and to voice approval or disapproval of legislation still remains in the committee even with passage of this resolution. The membership of the House will still be in a position to receive and give due weight to the opinions of the members of the Committee on Rules.

. . . By this resolution the responsibility for passing upon legislation will be transferred to the body where it rightfully belongs, namely in the membership of the House. If a major legislative committee of the House after serious consideration has passed a bill, certainly it deserves to be heard by the membership of the House—not necessarily passed, Mr. Speaker, but a chance to be heard. . . .

Mr. Speaker, the good people who elected me to this House did so with the feeling that I would be an equal member of this body with my colleagues chosen by others. My constituents did not cast a free ballot for the office of U.S. representatives to Congress to have the functions of that office limited by one or two or even six other members. They understand that in a body as large as this the majority shall govern and the policy of that majority shall be established in caucus and put forward in the form of legislation by the leadership chosen by the majority. It is difficult to explain to them how 2 members of the majority can desert the majority’s program, join with 4 members of the minority and among them determine the course of action of 431 other members of this House. This situation makes me and all the other members of this great body conditional congressmen, limited in our actions to those proposals agreeable not to the majority, but to the small group comprising the leadership of the coalition. Does their judgment supersede the cumulative judgment of the legislative committees? Do they have some inherent right not afforded the other 431 members to determine the course of legislation and in that way the nation’s future in these troubled times?

It would appear that they at least think so. Who else would have the audacity and arrogance to even suggest that in exchange for our agreeing to the status quo they would permit us to consider five pieces of legislation said to be the cornerstone of the new administration’s domestic program? This offer was an insult to the house and its members. The fact that it was a bona fide and sincere attempt only heightens the frightening picture of two men telling a nation that they will permit five bills to pass if they can reserve their right to kill off any others that do not meet with their approval.

They have forsaken the fundamental basic tenet of our republic—the will of the majority shall prevail. They have flaunted principles and precepts which we hold dear. They have ignored the needs of the Nation and taken unto themselves powers never delegated to them. Such a situation cannot be tolerated any longer. The membership of the Rules Committee must be increased so as to convert it into an instrument of responsible party leadership.

Mr. POFF.[10] . . . What are those consequences [of increasing the size of the Rules Committee]? In their sum total, they amount to usurpation of the independent autonomy of one of the great committees of the House of Representatives. The Rules Committee would become the mere amanuensis of the majority leadership. As such, the majority leadership and not the Rules Committee would have the power to dictate the content and character of each rule regulating debate on each piece of legislation reported for floor consideration. The majority leadership and not the committee would have the power to decide how much time would be divided between the majority and the minority, whether or not amendments would be in order and whether or not points of order would be waived. In the hands of the committee, these powers are diffused among the membership of both parties on the committee and subject to a majority vote of that membership. In the hands of majority leadership, these powers would be concentrated and consolidated in a small, partisan group and subject perhaps to the will of one member of that group.

From this consequence, further consequences entail. If one committee of the House can be packed and its autonomy usurped, every committee of the House can be packed and its autonomy usurped. This would mean the virtual obliteration of the committee system and the internal system of checks and balances of which it is a part, without which the organizational and functional democracy of the House of Representatives would perish.

Mr. TRIMBLE. Mr. Speaker, I move the previous question.

The previous question was ordered.

The SPEAKER. The question is on the resolution.

Mr. BROWN of Ohio. Mr. Speaker, on that I ask for the yeas and nays.

The yeas and nays were ordered.

The question was taken; and there were—yeas 217, nays 212

[Therefore, the motion to increase the size of the Rules Committee was adopted.]

  1. 1. James William Trimble (1894–1972) was a representative in the House from Arkansas. He served in the House from 1945–1967.
  2. 2. Clarence Brown (1893–1965) was a representative from Ohio who served in the House from 1939 until his death in 1965. He was also the president of a major publishing company.
  3. 3. In February of 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt proposed to expand the Supreme Court by adding a new justice for every member over 70 years of age who refused to retire at that age. It was widely perceived as an attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court with judges that would render decisions more favorable to his New Deal program, and was highly controversial.
  4. 4. Howard W. “Judge” Smith (1883–1976) was a member of the House of Representatives from Virginia who served as chair of the Rules Committee from 1955–1967. He used his power as chair of the Rules Committee to stifle the passage of civil rights and other legislation.
  5. 5. Leslie Arends (1895–1985) was a member of the House of Representatives from Illinois who served as the Republican Whip in the House. He served from 1935–1974.
  6. 6. Charles Halleck (1900–1986) was a representative from Indiana who served from 1935–1969. He was the majority leader of the House from 1947–1949 and the minority leader from 1959–1965, supplanting Joseph Martin as the Republican leader in Congress.
  7. 7. Sam Rayburn (1882–1961) was Speaker of the House of Representatives for seventeen years, a record that stands to this day. He is generally known as one of the greatest figures in the history of the House of Representatives. He represented Texas’s 4th district from 1913 until his death in 1961. The Rayburn Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. is named in his honor.
  8. 8. Sidney Yates (1909–2000) was a representative from Illinois who served in the House from 1949–1963 and from 1965–1999.
  9. 9. See The “Revolt of 1910” Against Speaker Joseph Cannon.
  10. 10. Richard Harding Poff (1923–2011) was a U.S. representative from Virginia who served 1953–1972, and as justice of the Virginia Supreme Court from 1972–1988.
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