Committee of the Whole

“Committee of the Whole” is a type of committee described in Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th Edition)(see RONR Section 52). While not commonly used, some large assemblies and legislative bodies follow the process. Without question, the procedure is an odd one. The normal presiding officer leaves the chair and a chairman of the committee is appointed. Members can speak in debate on the main question or amendment as often as they can get the floor. Only certain motions are in order. The committee is intended to adopt a report to be made to the assembly and then votes to “rise and report.”

A parliamentarian doing some training asked if I might have some historical perspective on Committee of the Whole, such as why the presiding officer leaves the chair. Below is my response, which I thought might be of interest to others.

I also enjoy the history of procedure, but don’t know that much will be findable about the history of Committee of the Whole other than what might be online. Robert Luce explains in one of his books from the early twentieth century that committees were a creation of Parliament in the 1300’s. Because committees had limited membership and participation, one committee that quickly came into use was basically the House sitting as a whole, which allowed for much greater participation. Certain practices, like having the Speaker not preside over the meeting arose during the time of King James out of concern that the Speaker was the King’s minion. At first the Speaker had to leave the chamber when the House resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole, but later the practice became having the Speaker simply take a seat in the assembly. For some time, the Speaker was treated as any other member and could speak and vote, but that practice apparently ended in Parliament in the 1800’s.

In the American colonies, Committee of the Whole was familiar to early lawmakers and a number of states had processes where most every bill was referred to Committee of the Whole for consideration. These days, about the only bodies that go into Committee of the Whole are legislative bodies or large assemblies that have specific rules outlining the process or a very long history of using Committee of the Whole. Most other groups would find the process strange, cumbersome or unnecessary, as other processes, such as informal consideration of a matter, could be used instead.