Order Code 97-236 GOV
Updated March 15, 2005
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Floor Procedure in the House of
Representatives: A Brief Overview
Elizabeth Rybicki and Stanley Bach
Government and Finance Division
The House considers bills and resolutions on the floor under several different sets
of procedures governing the time for debate and the opportunities for amendment. Some
procedures allow 40 or 60 minutes for debate; others permit debate to continue until a
majority of Members vote to end it. Some procedures prohibit most or all floor
amendments; others allow Members to offer any amendments that meet the
requirements of the House’s rules and precedents. Notwithstanding these differences,
the rules, precedents, and practices of the House generally are designed to permit the
majority to work its will in a timely manner.
Underlying the complicated legislative procedures of the House of Representatives
is the general principle that the majority should be able to prevail without undue delay by
the minority.1 In support of this principle, the House imposes limits on debate. These
debate restrictions prevent filibusters on the House floor and severely constrain the ability
of Members to delay action that is supported by a unified and determined majority of the
In many cases, the House’s rules limit the amount of time that is available to all
Representatives for debating a measure or motion. In others, the rules enable a simple
majority to end a debate — for example, by voting to “order the previous question.”
Opportunities for individual Members to participate in debate also are controlled. No
Member can speak in the House for more than an hour at a time, except by unanimous
consent, and debate time often is limited much more severely. For example, Members
usually are recognized for only five minutes each to speak on amendments being debated
on the floor.
This report was written by Stanley Bach, a former Senior Specialist in the Legislative Process
at CRS. The other listed author updated the report and can respond to inquiries on the subject.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The House does not use the same procedure to debate, amend, and vote on every bill
and resolution it considers. Instead, there are several alternative procedures that the
House employs for considering measures on the floor, depending on how much
controversy and disagreement each measure inspires. These procedures differ in the
opportunities they allow Members to debate and to propose amendments, and sometimes
in the majorities they require for passage.
For instance, bills that evoke virtually no opposition are called up and passed by
unanimous consent; there normally is very little floor debate and no significant
amendments. Private legislation, affecting individual persons or entities, also is
considered under very abbreviated procedures.
The House considers many more bills, which enjoy overwhelming but not
unanimous support, under “suspension of the rules.” Under this procedure, all debate on
the bill is limited to 40 minutes, no floor amendments can be proposed, and a two-thirds
vote is required for passage.
When a bill is considered “in the House,” debate usually ends after no more than one
hour. At the end of this hour, a majority almost always votes to order the previous
question, which brings the House to a prompt vote on passing the bill by simple majority
vote, without further debate and with no amendments from Members on the floor. There
can be a second hour of debate during which an amendment can be offered, but only if the
previous question is not ordered, which rarely occurs in practice. For these reasons, few
bills that most Members want to debate at length and amend are considered “in the
Most major bills are considered under a more elaborate procedure that involves the
Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union. When the House resolves into
Committee of the Whole to consider a particular bill, there first is a period for general
debate, lasting for an hour or more. Members then may consider amendments (including
committee amendments), usually to one section or title of the bill at a time. As each
amendment to the bill is debated, Members can offer perfecting amendments to it and a
substitute for it, which also is amendable, before any votes occur.
During this process, each Representative may debate an amendment for only five
minutes, usually by moving “to strike the last word,” unless everyone agrees to allow him
or her more time. But a majority can vote to end the debate (but not to order the previous
question) on any amendment or on the part of the bill that has been read. When the
Committee has disposed of the last amendment to be offered, it “rises” and reports the bill
back to the House with the amendments it has approved. The House then votes on these
amendments before considering a motion to recommit, if offered by a minority party
member, and then voting on passing the bill as it has been amended.
Privileges and Special Rules
To be considered on the floor in any one of these ways, a bill must be called up by
unanimous consent or it must be “privileged,” meaning that it may interrupt the regular
daily order of business established by the House’s rules. For instance, the order of
business may be interrupted by motions to suspend the rules on each Monday, Tuesday,
and Wednesday. General appropriations bills and certain kinds of resolutions may be
called up for consideration whenever another matter is not already pending.
Most major bills become privileged, however, only when a majority of the House
votes to adopt a resolution for that purpose recommended by the Rules Committee. Each
of these resolutions, which also are known as “rules” or “special rules,” proposes that the
House act on a particular measure, most often in Committee of the Whole, usually after
the committee with jurisdiction over it has recommended its passage.
Equally important, a special rule can have a significant effect on the amending
process. Many of these resolutions are “open” rules under which Members can propose
any amendments that satisfy the usual requirements of House rules and precedents. But
the Rules Committee also may propose “closed” rules under which no floor amendments
are in order, or rules restricting the amendments that Members can offer without
prohibiting them altogether.
Finally, special rules may waive points of order that Members otherwise might make
against considering a bill or some amendment to it. In the absence of such a waiver, for
example, each bill must be accompanied by a committee report that includes an estimate
of its cost and each amendment must be germane to the text it proposes to change.
There are additional rules governing bills and amendments that affect federal
revenues and spending. For instance, appropriations bills originate in the House and most
of them may not provide for spending that has not already been authorized by law. By the
same token, these appropriations bills (and amendments to them) are not supposed to
make changes in permanent law, though under some circumstances they may limit the
purposes for which funds may be spent.
Appropriations and revenue bills and other measures affecting the federal budget also
are subject to provisions of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, as amended by the socalled Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985 and the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990.
For example, the Budget Act directs Congress to adopt a budget resolution each year as
the context in which to act on individual spending and tax bills.
Reaching Agreement With the Senate
Once the Senate amends and passes a bill the House already has passed (or the House
amends and passes a Senate bill), the two houses begin to resolve their legislative
differences. The House might accept the Senate’s position or it might further amend the
Senate amendment. The House may also propose creation of a conference committee to
resolve the differences between them. The House debates the resulting conference report,
signed by a majority of House conferees and a majority of Senate conferees, for an hour
and with no amendments in order. Motions to dispose of any amendments that remain
in disagreement between the two houses also are debated under the hour rule.
The House and Senate must resolve all their disagreements concerning a bill or joint
resolution before it can be “enrolled” and presented to the President for his approval or
Related CRS Reports
CRS Report 98-995. The Amending Process in the House of Representatives.
CRS Report 96-708. Conference Committee and Related Procedures: An Introduction
CRS Report RL32200. Debate, Motions, and Other Actions in Committee of the Whole.
CRS Report 98-996. Legislative Procedures and the Legislative Agenda in the House of
CRS Report 95-563. The Legislative Process on the House Floor: An Introduction.