XI. General Debate in the Committee of the Whole
There are two ways for the House to be resolved into the Committee of the Whole. Normally the House is resolved into the Committee of the Whole when, pursuant to a special rule, the Speaker declares the House resolved into the Committee of the Whole, in which case the resolving action is automatic and no vote is put to the Members. The less common way is when the manager of the bill moves that the House resolve itself into the Committee of the Whole (by authority of the standing rules in the case of a privileged matter such as an appropriations bill), in which case the motion is put to the Members.
Once the House has resolved into the Committee of the Whole pursuant to a special rule, to consider a particular measure, the parliamentary conduct of the Committee is dictated by the special rule (refer to this manual’s Section IX, “Special Rules For Major Bills”) as well as general House rules.
The “first reading” of the bill is normally dispensed with by the specific provisions of the special rule governing consideration of the bill. The Clerk reads the title and then the Chair recognizes a Majority and Minority party Member to manage the debate. This is usually the Chair and Ranking Member of the committee or subcommittee with jurisdiction over the pending bill.
One half of the general debate time is customarily allotted by the special rule to the Minority and that time is usually managed by the Ranking Member of the committee or subcommittee.
Speaking During General Debate:
The time for general debate is controlled by the Majority and Minority Floor managers of a bill and a Member should ask the Majority or Minority manager at the committee table for time to speak. Normally, members of the committee with jurisdiction over the bill speak first, and those not on the committee speak later. The first speech is given by the Majority and the order of speakers then informally rotates back and forth across the aisle.
If Members need additional time to speak, they must ask the Floor manager to yield more time. It is not in order to ask unanimous consent for additional time during general debate because the time is “controlled.” A Member may instead wish to speak briefly about the bill and ask unanimous consent to revise and extend their remarks and insert a much longer statement into the Congressional Record to cover all the points the Member wants to make. (NOTE: Different typeface will appear in the Congressional Record to distinguish unspoken words.)
How a Member Obtains Time to Speak:
The Floor manager will yield time to a Member, and the Chair of the Committee of the Whole will recognize him or her for the allotted time. Once at a microphone, a Member’s remarks may be prefaced by saying, “Mr. Chairman (or Madam Chairman), I ask unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks.” Then he or she may proceed to speak for the time yielded. The Floor manager may yield extra time to Members to complete their statements if requested and the time is available.
If a Member would like to ask a question of another Member who is speaking or make a comment, he or she should address the Chair and say, “Mr. Chairman (or Madam Chairman), will the gentleman (or gentlewoman) from (STATE) yield to me?” If the Member wishes to yield, he or she may do so at his or her discretion and must remain standing while the other Member speaks. A Member to whom a specific amount of time has been yielded can yield to another Member as long as he or she remains standing.
Conduct During Debate:
Words Taken Down: A Member should avoid impugning the motives of another Member, the Senate or a Member of the Senate, the Vice President or the President, as well as using offensive language or uttering words that are otherwise deemed unparliamentary. These actions violate the rules of the House and are subject to a point of order. A point of order may be made by a Member “demanding that the gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s) words be taken down.” If this happens in the Committee of the Whole, the Committee of the Whole rises and the Speaker must return to the Chair and rule on the propriety of the words used. In the case of remarks regarding the Senate and the President or the Vice President, the Chair may take the initiative and admonish Members for unparliamentary references.
Often the offending Member obtains unanimous consent to withdraw the inappropriate words or the demand is withdrawn before the Speaker rules and then the Member proceeds in order. However, if the Member’s words are ruled out of order, they may be stricken from the Congressional Record by motion or unanimous consent, and the Member will not be allowed to speak again on that day, except by motion or unanimous consent (clause 4 of rule XVII).
Disorderly Conduct in the Chamber: A Member may not engage in disorderly or disruptive conduct in the chamber, which includes intentionally obstructing or impeding the passage of others, using an exhibit to impede, disrupt or disturb House proceedings and denying legislative instrument to others seeking to engage in legislative proceedings (clause 9 of rule XVII).
Relevancy: A Member may get carried away in debate and stray from the subject under discussion. If so, he or she may be subject to a point of order that his or her remarks are not confined to the question under debate (clause 1(b) of rule XVII).
Speaking Out of Order: If a Member has to make an important announcement to the House that is not relevant to the debate, the Member may ask unanimous consent to “speak out of order” for a period of time (usually one minute). If granted, the Member may then speak on the desired subject for the allotted time.
Traffic in the Well: Members should avoid crossing between the Chair and any Member who is addressing the House. In addition, Members should not exit or cross the Well of the House when Members are speaking (clause 5 of rule XVII).
Dress Code: Members should dress appropriately, which traditionally means male Members should wear a coat and tie and female Members should wear business attire. Members should not wear overcoats or hats on the Floor while the House is in session. Eating, drinking, and smoking are not permitted.
Use of Electronics: The use of a mobile electronic device that impairs decorum, such as speaking on a wireless phone, including the taking of pictures, audio or visual recordings or broadcasting proceedings, is strictly prohibited on the Floor of the House and may be subject to fine (clause 5 of rule XVII).
Forms of Address: Members should not address their colleagues by their first name on the House Floor. They should be addressed as “the gentleman (or gentlewoman) from (State)”.
NOTE: All of the same cautions and prohibitions mentioned above with respect to conduct during debate in the Committee of the Whole also apply to conduct during debate in the House.
Quorum and Vote in the Committee of the Whole:
A quorum in the Committee of the Whole consists of 100 Members. However, during general debate the Chair has the discretion to refuse to entertain a point of order that a quorum is not present. If the Chair does permit a quorum call at this point and orders the call by electronic device, Members will be summoned by three bells to the House Floor to record their presence.
The Chair must entertain a point of no quorum during consideration of a measure under the five-minute rule (the regular amendment process) if a quorum has not yet been established in the Committee of the Whole on the bill on that day. However, if a quorum has been established in Committee, the Chair may not later entertain a point of no quorum during consideration under the five-minute rule unless and until the question is put on a pending amendment or motion. Whenever such a question is put before the Committee, any Member may seek recognition and say: “On that question I request a recorded vote, and pending that, I make a point of order that a quorum is not present.”
If less than 100 Members are present, the Chair will direct that Members record their presence by electronic device. The Chair at his or her discretion may order either a “live” or “notice” quorum call. For a live quorum call, Members must respond by recording their presence. A Member’s absence will be noted in the Congressional Record. In the case of a “regular” quorum call where a five-minute vote on an amendment is expected following the quorum call, Members are summoned by three bells followed by five bells.
Alternatively, in the absence of a quorum, the Chair may order a “notice” quorum call and vacate the quorum call at any time when 100 Members appear. The Committee then continues its business, and no indication of who responded to the call will appear in the Congressional Record. In the case of a “notice” quorum call, Members are summoned by one long bell followed by three short bells. In current practice, notice quorum calls are very rare.