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What is the Committee of the Whole?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Committee of the Whole, officially the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union, is a parliamentary measure regularly invoked in the United States House of Representatives for the purpose of relaxing some of the rigid rules members must observe while the House is in session, and for including all members in the debate. Technically, the entire House becomes a congressional committee, often for the purpose of initial consideration of money bills, but for other purposes as well. The membership in both bodies is identical, but they don't exist simultaneously. The House resolves itself into the Committee of the Whole, and then the committee dissolves itself back into the House of Representatives.

While sitting as the U.S. House of Representatives, the speaker of the house is the presiding officer and a quorum of 218 is required to conduct business. When the House resolves itself into the Committee of the Whole, however, the speaker appoints another member as presiding officer and a quorum of only 100 is required. One of the chief advantages of this process is that instead of relegating an issue to a standing or select committee whose members are only a small portion of the House's membership, all members may participate actively in the debate and contribute their opinions, within the limitations of the rules.

When the Committee votes, it doesn't have the effect of a House vote, but has the same effect as any House committee. This permits some non-voting members of the House, such as the delegates from the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa, the same voting rights in the Committee of the Whole that they have in congressional committees, although their votes may not be the deciding votes. Additionally, votes in the Committee of the Whole are not recorded unless requested by 25 members. One of the amusing aspects of the Committee of the Whole approach is that the House essentially makes recommendations to itself. For instance, the House sitting as the Committee of the Whole might vote to approve an amendment to a pending piece of legislation, but the amendment wouldn't take effect until after the Committee dissolved itself and the full House approved it.

Many legislative bodies worldwide use the Committee of the Whole approach to relaxing rigid rules in their deliberations when the inclusion of all members in the process is preferred to relegating the matter to a single committee. Interestingly, the United States Senate does not use this device, having abolished it completely in 1986.

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