Rules Clause

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

Rules Clause

Article I, Section 5, Clause 2

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings... 

The Constitution grants the House and the Senate the power to determine the rules of their respective proceedings. In A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States  (1840), Justice Joseph Story wrote that without this power, "it would be utterly impracticable to transact the business of the nation at all, or at least, to transact it with decency, deliberation, and order. Without rules, no public body can suitably perform its functions. If rules are made, they are mere nullities, unless the persons on whom they are to operate, can be compelled to obey them." Consequently, the Rules Clause has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to grant each House broad discretion in determining the rules of its own internal operations.

In United States v. Ballin (1892), the Supreme Court was asked to determine the constitutionality of a House rule that allowed the Speaker of the House to count for purposes of a quorum Members whom he ascertained were part of a cabal that was simply refusing to answer a quorum call in an attempt to deny the House a quorum and stop legislative business. IN upholding the rule's constitutionality, the Court stated that "[n]either do the advantages of disadvantages, the wisdom or folly, of such a rule present any matters for judicial consideration. With the courts the question is only one of power. The Constitution of empowers each house to determine its rules of proceedings." The Court continued that "[i]t is no objection to the validity of a rule that a different one has been prescribed and in force for a length of time. The power to make rules is not one which once exercised is exhausted. It is a continuous power, always subject to be exercised by the House, and, within the limitations suggested, absolute and beyond the challenge of any other body or tribunal." In NLRB v. Canning (2014), the Supreme Court held that for purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause (Article II, Section 2, Clause 3), the Senate has the power under the Rules Clause to determine when it is in session. 

While the Ballin Court emphasized that neither house could constitutionally adopt rules that "ignore constitutional restraints," insofar as a House or Senate rule affects only its internal operations, the courts have held that challenges to such rules are nonjusticiable under two separate doctrines. 

First, as the Supreme Court observed in Allen v. Wright (1984), "[t]he law of Article III standing is built on a single basic idea--the idea of separation of powers." Under current standing rules, it is unlikely a federal legislator could establish standing to challenge the constitutionality of a House or Senate rule when the body as a whole has already rejected such a challenge; unless, as the Supreme Court stated in Raines v. Byrd (1997), the challenged rule has "completely nullified" the votes of federal legislators.

Second, as the Supreme Court stated in Baker v. Carr (1962), under the political question doctrine a court will not hear a case if sufficient separation of powers concerns are raised, and such is the case when there is a "textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department...or the impossibility of a court's undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government." The Rules Clause would seem to constitute a "textually demonstrable constitutional commitment" of the rule making power to each house under the Constitution. 

David F. Forte

Professor, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law

Paul Taylor, Proposals to Prevent Discontinuity in Government and preserve the Right to Elected Representation, 54 Syracuse L. Rev. 435 (2004)

United States v. Ballin, 144 U.S. 1 (1892)

Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962)

Allen v. Wright 468 U.S. 750 (1984)

Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811 (1997)

National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, 753 U.S.___ (2014)