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How Our Laws Are Made

XI. Consideration and Debate


Consideration of measures may involve several stages, the most pertinent of which are discussed below. Also discussed are various restrictions on House consideration, as well as voting methods and mechanisms.




In order to expedite the consideration of bills and resolutions, the rules of the House provide for a parliamentary mechanism, known as the Committee of the Whole House on the state of the Union, that enables the House to act with a quorum of less than the requisite majority of the entire House. A quorum in the Committee of the Whole is 100 members. All measures on the Union Calendar—those involving a tax, making appropriations, authorizing payments out of appropriations already made, or disposing of property—must be first considered in the Committee of the Whole.


The Committee on Rules reports a rule allowing for immediate consideration of a measure by the Committee of the Whole. After adoption of the rule by the House, the Speaker may declare the House resolved into the Committee of the Whole. When the House resolves into the Committee of the Whole, the Speaker leaves the chair after appointing a Chairman to preside.


The rule referred to in the preceding paragraph also fixes the length of the debate in the Committee of the Whole. This may vary according to the importance of the measure. As provided in the rule, the control of the time is usually divided equally between the chairman and the ranking minority member of the relevant committee. Members seeking to speak for or against the measure may arrange in advance with the Member in control of the time on their respective side to be allowed a certain amount of time in the debate. Members may also ask the Member speaking at the time to yield to them for a question or a brief statement. A transcript of the proceedings in the House and the Senate is printed daily in the Congressional Record. Frequently, permission is granted a Member by unanimous consent to revise and extend his remarks in the Congressional Record if sufficient time to make a lengthy oral statement is not available during actual debate. These revisions and extensions are printed in a distinctive type and cannot substantively alter the verbatim transcript.


The conduct of the debate is governed principally by the rules of the House that are adopted at the opening of each Congress. In the 106th Congress, the rules were re-codified for simplification and clarity. Jefferson’s Manual, prepared by Thomas Jefferson for his own guidance as President of the Senate from 1797 to 1801, is another recognized authority. The House has a long-standing rule that the provisions of Jefferson’s Manual should govern the House in all applicable cases and where they are not inconsistent with the rules of the House. Most parliamentary questions arising during the course of debate are responded to by a ruling based on a precedent in a similar situation. The Parliamentarian of the House is present in the House Chamber in order to assist the Speaker or the Chairman in making a correct ruling on parliamentary questions.




During general debate on a bill, an accurate account of the time used on both sides is kept and the Chairman terminates the debate when all the time allowed under the rule has been consumed. After general debate, the second reading of the bill begins. The second reading is a section-by-section reading during which amendments may be offered to a section when it is read. Under many special ‘‘modified closed’’ rules adopted by the House, certain bills are considered as read and open only to prescribed amendments under limited time allocations. Under an ‘‘open’’ amendment process, a Member is permitted five minutes to explain the proposed amendment, after which the Member who is first recognized by the Chair is allowed to speak for five minutes in opposition to it. There is technically no further debate on that amendment, thereby effectively preventing filibuster-like tactics. This is known as the ‘‘five-minute rule.’’ However, Members may offer an amendment to the amendment, for separate five-minute debate, or may offer a pro forma amendment—‘‘to strike the last word’’—which does not change the language of the amendment but allows the Member five minutes for debate. Each substantive amendment and amendment thereto is put to the Committee of the Whole for adoption unless the House has adopted a special rule ‘‘self-executing’’ the adoption of certain amendments in the Committee of the Whole. The House may, after initially adopting an open rule, later alter that rule by unanimous consent to establish a ‘‘universe’’ or list of amendments to a bill. This procedure is most commonly used on general appropriation bills because of the volume of amendments.


At any time after debate has begun on proposed amendments to a section or paragraph of a bill under the five-minute rule, the Committee of the Whole may by majority vote of the Members present close debate on the amendment or the pending section or paragraph. However, if debate is closed on a section or paragraph before there has been debate on an amendment that a Member has caused to be printed in the Congressional Record at least one day prior to floor consideration of the amendment, the Member who caused the amendment to be printed in the Record is given five minutes in which to explain the amendment. Five minutes is also given to speak in opposition to the amendment but no further debate on the amendment is allowed. Amendments placed in the Congressional Record must indicate the full text of the proposed amendment, the name of the Member proposing it, the number of the bill or amendment to which it will be offered, and the point in the bill or amendment thereto where the amendment is intended to be offered. These amendments appear in the portion of the Record designated for that purpose.




The rules of the House prohibit amendments of a subject matter different from the text under consideration. This rule, commonly known as the germaneness rule, is one of the most important rules of the House of Representatives because of the obvious need to keep the focus of a body the size of the House on a predictable subject matter. The germaneness rule applies to the proceedings in the House, the Committee of the Whole, and the standing committees. There are hundreds of prior rulings or ‘‘precedents’’ on germaneness available to guide the Chair.




A House rule provides that it is not in order to consider bills and joint resolutions reported from a committee unless the committee report includes a list of congressional earmarks, limited tax benefits and limited tariff benefits in the bill or in the report, or a statement that the measure contains none of these items. The report must include the name of any Member, Delegate or Resident Commissioner who submitted a request to the committee for each respective item included in the list. This rule also applies to conference reports, unreported bills and joint resolutions, and to a so-called ‘‘manager’s amendment’’ offered at the outset of the amendment process by a member of the committee of initial referral under the terms of a special rule. With respect to unreported bills, unreported joint resolutions and managers’ amendments, the rule requires the list or statement to be printed in the Congressional Record prior to consideration. In the case of a conference report, the list or statement must be included in the joint explanatory statement prepared by the managers of the House and the managers of the Senate. A special rule from the Committee on Rules that waives the requirements of this rule is subject to a special point of order and vote.




At the conclusion of the consideration of a bill for amendment, the Committee of the Whole ‘‘rises’’ and reports the bill to the House with any amendments that have been adopted. In rising, the Committee of the Whole reverts back to the House and the Chairman of the Committee is replaced by the Speaker of the House. The House then acts on the bill and any amendments adopted by the Committee of the Whole. If the Committee of the Whole rises on motion prior to the conclusion of consideration of amendments, the bill must return to the Committee of the Whole for subsequent consideration. Thus, the simple motion to rise may be used to immediately halt consideration of a bill similar to a motion to adjourn in the House.




Debate on a bill in the House is cut off by moving and ordering ‘‘the previous question.’’ All debate is cut off on the bill if this motion is carried by a majority of the Members voting, a quorum being present, or by a special rule ordering the previous question upon the rising of the Committee of the Whole. The Speaker then puts the question: ‘‘Shall the bill be engrossed and read a third time?’’ If this question is decided in the affirmative, the bill is read a third time by title only and voted on for passage.


If the previous question has been ordered by the terms of the rule on a bill reported by the Committee of the Whole, the House immediately votes on whatever amendments have been reported by the Committee in the order in which they appear in the bill unless voted on en bloc. After completion of voting on the amendments, the House immediately votes on the passage of the bill with the amendments it has adopted. However, a motion to recommit, as described in the next section, may be offered and voted on prior to the vote on passage.


The Speaker may postpone a recorded vote on final passage of a bill or resolution, as well as other matters, for up to two legislative days.


Measures that do not have to be considered in the Committee of the Whole are considered in the House in accordance with the terms of the rule limiting debate on the measure or under the ‘‘hour rule.’’ The hour rule limits the amount of time that a Member may occupy in debate on a pending question to 60 minutes. Generally, the opportunity for debate may also be curtailed if the Speaker makes the rare determination that a motion is dilatory.


After passage or rejection of the bill by the House, a motion to reconsider it is automatically laid on the table by unanimous consent. The motion to reconsider is tabled to prohibit this motion from being made at a later date because the vote of the House on a proposition is not final and conclusive until there has been an opportunity to reconsider it.




After the previous question has been ordered on a bill or joint resolution, it is in order to offer one motion to recommit the bill or joint resolution to a committee, and the Speaker gives preference in recognition for that purpose to a minority party Member who is opposed to the bill or joint resolution. This motion is not subject to debate. However, a motion to recommit with instructions offered after the previous question has been ordered is debatable for 10 minutes, except that the majority floor manager may demand that the debate be extended to one hour. Whatever time is allotted for debate is divided equally between the proponent and an opponent of the motion. Instructions in the motion to recommit normally take the form of germane amendments proposed by the minority to immediately change the final form of the bill prior to passage. Instructions may also be ‘‘general,’’ consisting of nonbinding instructions to the committee to take specified actions such as to ‘‘promptly’’ review the bill with a particular political viewpoint or to hold further hearings. Such general instructions may not contain argument.




Article I, Section 5, of the Constitution provides that a majority of each House constitutes a quorum to do business and authorizes a smaller number than a quorum to compel the attendance of absent Members. In order to fulfill this constitutional responsibility, the rules of the House provide alternative procedures for quorum calls in the House and the Committee of the Whole.


In the absence of a quorum, 15 Members may initiate a call of the House to compel the attendance of absent Members. Such a call of the House must be ordered by a majority vote. A call of the House is then ordered and the call is taken by electronic device or by response to the alphabetical call of the roll of Members. Absent Members have a minimum of 15 minutes from the ordering of the call of the House by electronic device to have their presence recorded. If sufficient excuse is not offered for their absence, they may be sent for by the Sergeant-at-Arms and their attendance secured and retained. The House then determines the conditions on which they may be discharged. Members who voluntarily appear are, unless the House otherwise directs, immediately admitted to the Hall of the House and must report their names to the Clerk to be entered on the Journal as present. Compulsory attendance or arrest of Members has been rare in modern practice.


The rules of the House provide special authority for the Speaker to recognize a Member of the Speaker’s choice to move a call of the House at any time.


When a question is put to a vote by the Speaker and a quorum fails to vote on such question, if a quorum is not present and objection is made for that reason, there is a call of the House unless the House adjourns. The call is taken by electronic device and the Sergeant-at-Arms may bring in absent Members. The yeas and nays on the pending question are at the same time considered as ordered and an ‘‘automatic’’ recorded vote is taken. The Clerk utilizes the electronic system or calls the roll and each Member who is present may vote on the pending question. If those voting on the question and those who are present and decline to vote together make a majority of the House, the Speaker declares that a quorum is constituted and the pending question is decided as the majority of those voting have determined.


The rules of the House prohibit points of order of no quorum unless the Speaker has put a question to a vote.


If the House should be without a quorum due to catastrophic circumstances, the rules of the House establish procedures by which a provisional number of the House may operate until a sufficient number of Members to constitute a quorum appears.


The rules for quorum calls are different in some respects in the Committee of the Whole. The first time the Committee of the Whole finds itself without a quorum during a day the Chairman is required to order the roll to be called by electronic device, unless the Chairman orders a call of the Committee. However, the Chairman may refuse to entertain a point of order of no quorum during general debate. If on a call, a quorum (100 Members) appears, the Committee continues its business. If a quorum does not appear, the Committee rises and the Chairman reports the names of the absentees to the House. The rules provide for the expeditious conduct of quorum calls in the Committee of the Whole. The Chairman may suspend a quorum call after 100 Members have recorded their presence. Under such a short quorum call, the Committee will not rise and proceedings under the quorum call are vacated. In that case, a recorded vote, if ordered immediately following the termination of the short quorum call, is a minimum of 15 minutes. In the alternative, the Chair may choose to permit a full 15-minute quorum call, wherein all Members are recorded as present or absent, to be followed by a five-minute record vote on the pending question. Once a quorum of the Committee of the Whole has been established for a day, a quorum call in the Committee is only in order when the Committee is operating under the five-minute rule and the Chairman has put the pending question to a vote. The rules prohibit a point of order of no quorum against a vote in which the Committee of the Whole agrees to rise. However, an appropriate point of no quorum would be permitted against a vote defeating a motion to rise.




There are three methods of voting in the Committee of the Whole that are also employed in the House. These are the voice vote, the division, and the recorded vote. The yea-and-nay vote is a method used only in the House, and it may be automatic if a Member objects to the vote on the ground that a quorum is not present.


To conduct a voice vote the Chair puts the question: ‘‘As many as are in favor say ‘Aye’. As many as are opposed, say ‘No’. ’’ The Chair determines the result on a comparison of the volume of ayes and noes. This is the form in which the vote is ordinarily taken in the first instance.


If it is difficult to determine the result of a voice vote, a division may be demanded by a Member or initiated by the Chair. The Chair then states: ‘‘As many as are in favor will rise and stand until counted.’’ After counting those in favor he calls on those opposed to stand and be counted, thereby determining the number in favor of and those opposed to the question.


If any Member requests a recorded vote and that request is supported by at least one-fifth of a quorum of the House (44 Members), or 25 Members in the Committee of the Whole, the vote is taken by electronic device. After the recorded vote is concluded, the names of those voting and those not voting are entered in the Journal. Members have a minimum of 15 minutes to be counted from the time the record vote is ordered. The Speaker may reduce the period for voting to five minutes on subsequent votes in certain situations where there has been no intervening debate or business. The Speaker is not required to vote unless the Speaker’s vote would be decisive.


The modern practice in the Committee of the Whole postpones and clusters votes on amendments to maximize efficient scheduling of voting. The Chairman of the Committee of the Whole has discretionary authority to postpone votes on amendments and to reduce the time for voting on amendments to five minutes following a 15-minute vote on the first amendment in a series. The Chairman is not allowed to postpone votes on matters other than amendments and is mindful not to postpone votes where the outcome could be prejudicial to the offering of another amendment.


In the House, the support of one-fifth of the Members present is necessary under the Constitution for ordering the yeas and nays. When the yeas and nays are ordered, a recorded vote is ordered, or a point of order is made that a quorum is not present, the Clerk activates the electronic system or calls the roll and reports the result to the Speaker, who announces it to the House. Many legislative questions may be postponed to a time selected by the Speaker within two legislative days.


The rules of the House require a three-fifths vote to pass a bill, joint resolution, amendment, or conference report that contains a specified type of federal income tax rate increase. The rules of the House also provide for automatic yeas and nays on votes on passage of certain fiscal measures including a concurrent resolution on the budget or a general appropriation bill. The Constitution requires the yeas and nays on a vote overriding a Presidential veto.


The rules prohibit a Member from: (1) casting another Member’s vote or recording another Member’s presence in the House or the Committee of the Whole; or (2) authorizing another individual to cast a vote or record the Member’s presence in the House or the Committee of the Whole.




Recorded votes are usually taken by electronic device, except when the Speaker orders the vote to be recorded by other methods prescribed by the rules of the House. In addition, quorum calls are generally taken by electronic device. The electronic system works as follows: A number of vote stations are attached to selected chairs in the Chamber. Each station is equipped with a vote card slot and four indicators, marked ‘‘yea’’, ‘‘nay’’, ‘‘present’’, and ‘‘open’’ that are lit when a vote is in progress and the system is ready to accept votes. Each Member is provided with an encrypted Vote-ID Card. A Member votes by inserting the voting card into any one of the vote stations and pressing the appropriate button to indicate the Member’s choice. If a Member is without a Vote-ID Card or wishes to change his vote during the last five minutes of a vote, the Member may be recorded by handing a paper ballot to the Tally Clerk, who then records the vote electronically according to the indicated preference of the Member. The paper ballots are green for ‘‘yea,’’ red for ‘‘nay,’’ and orange for ‘‘present.’’




The former system of pairing of Members, where a Member could arrange in advance to be recorded as being either in favor of or opposed to the question by being ‘‘paired’’ with another absent Member who holds contrary views on the question, has largely been eliminated. The rules still allow for ‘‘live pairs.’’ A live pair is where a Member votes as if not paired, subsequently withdraws that vote, and then asks to be marked ‘‘present’’ to protect the other Member. The most common practice is for absent Members to submit statements for the Record stating how they would have voted if present on specific votes.




Due to the diverse nature of daily tasks that they have to perform, it is not practicable for Members to be present in the House or Senate Chamber at every minute that the body is in session. Furthermore, many of the routine matters do not require the personal attendance of all the Members. A system consisting of electric lights and bells or buzzers located in various parts of the Capitol Building and House and Senate Office Buildings alerts Members to certain occurrences in the House and Senate Chambers. In the House, the Speaker has ordered that the bells and lights comprising the system be utilized as follows:


1 long bell followed by a pause and then 3 bells and 3 lights on the left—Start or continuation of a notice or short quorum call in the Committee of the Whole that will be vacated if and when 100 Members appear on the floor. Bells are repeated every five minutes unless the call is vacated or the call is converted into a regular quorum call.


1 long bell and extinguishing of 3 lights on the left—Short or notice quorum call vacated.


2 bells and 2 lights on the left—15 minute recorded vote, yea-and-nay vote or automatic roll call vote by electronic device. The bells are repeated five minutes after the first bell.


2 bells and 2 lights on the left followed by a pause and then 2 more bells—15 minute vote taken by a call of the roll. The bells are repeated when the Clerk reaches the R’s in the first call of the roll.


2 bells followed by a pause and then 5 bells—First vote on clustered votes. Two bells are repeated five minutes after the first bell. The first vote will be not less than 15 minutes with successive votes being not less than five minutes. Each successive vote is signaled by five bells.


3 bells and 3 lights on the left—15 minute quorum call in either the House or in the Committee of the Whole by electronic device. The bells are repeated five minutes after the first bell.


3 bells followed by a pause and then 3 more bells—15 minute quorum call by a call of the roll. The bells are repeated when the Clerk reaches the R’s in the first call of the roll.


3 bells followed by a pause and then 5 more bells—Quorum call in the Committee of the Whole that may be followed immediately by a five-minute recorded vote.


4 bells and 4 lights on the left—Adjournment of the House.


5 bells and 5 lights on the left—Any five-minute vote.


6 bells and 6 lights on the left—Recess of the House.


12 bells at 2-second intervals with 6 lights on the left—Civil Defense Warning.


The 7th light indicates that the House is in session.




The House may by vote authorize the Speaker to declare a recess under the rules of the House. The Speaker also has the authority to declare the House in recess for a short time when no question is pending before the House or in the case of an emergency.




The rules of the House provide for unedited radio and television broadcasting and recording of proceedings on the floor of the House. However, the rules prohibit the use of these broadcasts and recordings for any political purpose or in any commercial advertisement. The rules of the Senate also provide for broadcasting and recording of proceedings in the Senate Chamber with similar restrictions.

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