Suspension Rules Rule in House

Posted September 30, 2009 at 6:33pm

In 1960, “Judge— Howard Smith (D-Va.) reigned over House legislation, earning the reputation of an obstructionist for his tendency to block any legislation he opposed as chairman of the House Rules Committee.

His stubbornness was so widely known that President John F. Kennedy once offered to help solve the problem — and got reprimanded by Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) for sticking his nose in House business, according to the House Historian’s office.

Today, the Rules Committee no longer wields such unchecked power; in fact, most legislation never passes over its desk. During the 110th Congress, the House voted on more than 1,500 bills under suspension of the rules, or 71 percent of all bills considered.

A new report from the Congressional Research Service helps confirm the extent of a long-suspected trend: the House’s increasing use of suspended rules, where Members vote quickly on pieces of legislation without regular debate.

The tactic ballooned relatively recently. Between the 89th and 92nd Congresses, for example, House Members considered an average of fewer than 200 during each two-year period, according to a 2005 CRS report on the issue. By the 108th Congress, that number rose to 924. And, according to the recent CRS report, the last Congress ended with 1,544 bills under suspension.

Members have used suspension of the rules “throughout House history,— usually implementing them in noncontroversial matters, said Anthony Wallis, a researcher in the House Historian’s office. Experts attribute their increased use to several changes, including an increase in the total number of introduced bills and the shift to resolving disagreements in committees rather than on the floor.

But over the years, Democrats and Republicans have also argued over misuse of the procedure, with the minority party often complaining that Congressional leaders were silencing debate.

In 1975, for example, the House Republican Task Force on Reform proposed that the practice be restricted, arguing that some bills “were even cynically brought up under suspension for the very purpose of defeating them.— House Republicans made a similar claim in 2008, when Democrats offered a series of controversial energy bills under suspension, only to offer them on the regular calendar after their failure.

“There undoubtedly have been instances in which measures have been brought to the floor under suspension motions in order to minimize debate and especially to preclude amendments,— according to the 2005 CRS report.

But in practice, most are used for legislation that would draw little debate — a bill renaming a post office, for example, or a resolution honoring a former colleague.

The 111th Congress is on track to continue the trend of moving hundreds of pieces of such legislation quickly. With more than two months left in the first session, Members have considered 495 bills under suspension.