House Rules: How Committees Operate

Each House committee has rules that dictate how the committee will function. These rules govern how many members must be present to take an action (i.e., quorum requirements), subpoenas, and other actions. The committees are (theoretically) the workhorses of Congress — legislation, reports, budgets, appropriations, and oversight all originate in committees. 

Committee rules exist under the umbrella of the rules that govern the entire House of Representatives. House and committee rules change every two years as the “new” House takes office after elections. The Congressional Research Service notes: “One of the majority party’s prerogatives is writing House rules and using its numbers to effect the chamber’s rules on the day a new House convenes.” 

That CRS report provides an overview of House rule changes from 2007 to 2017. CRS also provides a survey of House and Senate subpoena requirements through 2018. Finally, a CRS report describes rule changes affecting committee procedures in the current 116th Congress. 

Current committee rules are compiled in this 400 page document. Here are some highlights:

  • There are 20 standing committees, one permanent select committee (Intelligence), three temporary select committees (Coronavirus, Climate, and Modernization), and four joint committees (Economic, Library, Printing, Taxation).
  • To establish a quorum (the minimum number present to conduct business), most committees require a majority to report a measure or recommendation, issue a subpoena or close a hearing and one third for other business.
  • A quorum to take testimony and receive evidence is generally two members. The Small Business Committee requires one member from the Majority and Minority to be present.
  • Requiring a record vote generally requires one-fifth of members present.
  • Issuing a subpoena generally requires a majority, but that power is also often delegated to the Chair (e.g., Agriculture, Budget, Education & Labor, Energy & Commerce, Financial Services, Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, House Administration, Judiciary, Natural Resources, Rules, Science & Technology, Small Business, and Ways & Means)

The Rules of the House and each Committee are incredibly important, as controlling the process often controls the outcome. While each committee may need the discretion to create its own rules, it is difficult for the public, staff and new members (who serve on multiple committees) to interpret these rules in narrative form and understand the implications of a single word change or how the rules are actually applied.