Differences in rules, procedures and organization within the House and Senate relate to the different sizes of the two bodies. Since the House has over four times as many members as the Senate, and yet the two chambers must cover the same number of issues, individual Senators need to cover more ground in terms of public policy. In the 113th Congress (2013-14), House members had an average of 1.8 committee and 3.4 subcommittee assignments, whereas Senators had an average of 3 committee and 7 subcommittee assignments. (Vital Statistics on Congress) Since the House is over four times larger than the Senate, it cannot possibly allow each member as much time to debate issues on the floor as the Senate can. Consequently, the House has more centralized and structured organization and rules that depend on the majority, in many cases at the expense of the minority.
The House Rules Committee, which was introduced in the previous module, determines the number and types of amendments allowed on the floor of the House. Since the 1980s, the Speaker of the House has come to dominate the Rules Committee. The Speaker uses the Rules Committee to control the agenda, which is geared toward advancing the majority party’s issues and maximizing its chances of keeping the majority. Indeed, of the 13 members of the Rules Committee, 9 are from the majority party, and 4 are from the minority party, a ratio that undermines the minority party’s ability influence over the rules of debate in the House. The Rules Committee often restricts floor amendments that might either divide the majority party internally or, if offered by the minority party, force the majority to vote on politically-sensitive issues. Regardless of which party controls the majority in the House, the percentage of restrictive rules on bills going to the floor (including closed rules and structured rules that allow specified amendments) has become routine. While the Democrats had the majority in the 110th Congress (2007-08), 86% of all rules were restrictive; and while the Republicans were in the majority in the 113th Congress (2013-14), 91% of all rules were restrictive. (Wolfensberger 2015) The House Rules Committee has become an instrument of the majority party, and it can choose whether or not to allow the minority to offer amendments. Members of the majority differ on some issues that come to the House floor, but the majority party almost never votes to defeat a resolution from the Rules Committee. Rules create order, and the majority decides the rules in the House.
The Senate has no Rules Committee like the House. Rather, the rules for debating and amending Senate bills are worked out in informal negotiations between the Majority Leader and Minority Leader. If their parties can agree on amendments and time for debate, the leaders present to the Senate a Unanimous Consent Agreement (UCA). The UCA represents the leadership’s best guess about how the senators of their respective parties will behave during the debate. If the UCA is approved, i.e. no senators object, it governs amendment and debate on the Senate floor. Alternatively, if a senator objects to the UCA—in essence signaling his or her intention to attempt to block the legislation in question—the Senate’s normal rules of debate apply. These rules preference the rights of individual senators, including the right to filibuster. The filibuster can come in several forms—an extended speech, the threat of an extended speech, a series of procedural motions, or some combination. As noted in Module 4, the filibuster can continue indefinitely unless 60 Senators vote on cloture, a motion to end debate, as prescribed in Senate Rule XXII.
The number of filibusters has increased in the partisan and individualistic Senate to the point where filibusters are from time-to-time been used to obstruct the majority from ever taking a vote on legislation. There is no official way to determine or detect a filibuster. But, according to one study, filibusters on major legislation have increased from 10% in 1969-71 to about 70% by 2010 (Oleszek 2014). The number of cloture votes is a more reliable measure of attempts to obstruct the legislative process and the leadership’s efforts to retain control of the legislative agenda. Since 1997, Senate Majority Leaders of both parties have been preemptively filing cloture motions at the time they call up legislation in order to prevent filibusters from occurring. Thus, cloture votes themselves do not directly correspond to filibusters, but they do give us some sense of the extent to which leaders may find it difficult to control the agenda in the Senate. (Bell 2011) Votes to invoke cloture were very rare before 1970, but as the figure below shows, cloture votes became more common in the 1990s and have increased significantly in the past few congresses. (Binder 2014) The data clearly show that efforts by both the minority and majority parties to control the legislative agenda, through filibustering and preemptive cloture motions, have increased dramatically over time. This sort of obstruction and conflict over control of the floor agenda simply cannot happen in the House because of the much stricter controls on the legislative process as enforced by the Rules Committee.
Rules affect leadership and power. In the House, the majority party leadership, headed by the Speaker, controls the agenda. Members outside of the leadership in the majority party may have influence in committees and subcommittees, especially if they are chairs, but otherwise their power is limited. Senators, on the other hand, depend less on committees as a source of influence, since an individual senator can make amendments or speak on the floor.