Questions of Privilege in the House

Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress

he House of Representatives distinguishes between privileged business and questions of
privilege. Privileged business consists of those bills, resolutions, and other matters that
Members can bring up for consideration on the House floor. These matters are privileged T

to interrupt the regular order of business that is defined in the House’s rules. Questions of
privilege constitute one form of privileged business. Clause 1 of House Rule IX recognizes two
kinds of questions of privilege: questions of the privileges of the House, and questions of
personal privilege. For more information on legislative process, see
Under Rule IX, clause 1, questions of the privileges of the House are “those affecting the rights of
the House collectively, its safety, dignity, and the integrity of its proceedings.” For example,
questions relating to the seating of Members and the organization of the House at the beginning
of a Congress have been held to raise questions of the privileges of the House, as have questions
relating to the health and safety of Members and staff. Other subjects cited in House Practice as
giving rise to questions of the privileges of the House include: “the presence on the House floor
of unauthorized persons,” “the conduct of those in the press gallery,” “the integrity of the
Journal,” “the protection of House records and files,” “the accuracy of House documents and
records,” and “use of an allegedly forged document at a committee hearing.”
The Speaker determines whether a question that a Member has raised does in fact qualify under
the House’s precedents as a question of the privileges of the House. Two of the general principles
that guide the Speaker in making these determinations are stated in House Practice. First, “[a]
question of the privileges of the House may not be raised to effect a change in the rules of the
House or their interpretation;” and second, “[a] Member may not by raising a question of the
privileges of the House under Rule IX thereby attach privilege to a question not otherwise in
order under the rules of the House” (in other words, make a question a matter of privileged
Clause 1 of Rule IX defines questions of personal privilege as “those affecting the rights,
reputation, and conduct of Members, Delegates, or the Resident Commissioner, individually, in
their representative capacity only.” Again, it is the Speaker who determines whether an allegation
or statement gives rise to a question of personal privilege. According to House Practice, the
allegation or statement must refer to an individual Member and must reflect directly on the
Member’s integrity or reputation. “Mere statements of opinion about or general criticism of his
actions as a Member...or his voting record or not constitute grounds for a question of
personal privilege.”
Members have raised questions of personal privilege to respond to allegations about matters such
as misuse of public funds, conflicts of interest, abuse of the franking privilege, corruption and
bribery, criminal conspiracy or perjury, violation of the securities laws, and knowingly making a
false statement with the intent to deceive. Members may rise to questions of personal privilege to
respond to such public criticisms, whether made by other Members or, for example, in private
publications. However, a question of personal privilege “may not be based on language uttered on
the floor of the House in debate,” according to House Practice, because the offended Member has
another recourse: a timely demand that the objectionable words be taken down.

A Member raises a question of the privileges of the House in the form of a resolution. The
Member rises on the floor and states, “Mr. Speaker, I rise to a question of the privileges of the
House, and I offer a resolution which I send to the Clerk’s desk.” The text of the resolution is
read. If it is the majority leader or the minority leader who offers the resolution, the Speaker
immediately rules as to whether it constitutes a valid question of privilege. If the question is
raised by any other Member, consideration of it may be deferred until a time and place within the
next two legislative days that the Speaker designates in the legislative schedule. When that time
arrives, the Speaker then decides whether the resolution raises a valid question of privilege.
If the Speaker determines that the resolution does raise a valid question of privilege, the House
proceeds to consider the resolution under the one-hour rule, with the time for debate equally
divided between the resolution’s proponent and either the majority leader or the minority leader,
as the Speaker determines. The House may agree to order the previous question after the first
hour of debate on the resolution; if so, the House proceeds to vote on the resolution without
amendment or further debate. If the previous question is not ordered, debate may continue under
the one-hour rule, and the Member controlling the time may propose an amendment to the
resolution. Motions to table or refer the resolution, or to postpone its consideration, also are in
A Member raises a question of personal privilege simply by stating that he or she is rising on the
floor for that purpose. A question of personal privilege is not raised by resolution. The Speaker
then asks the Member to explain the grounds on which the question is based. If the Speaker
determines that the Member has raised a valid question of privilege, that Member is recognized
immediately to speak for one hour. After this hour for debate, the House takes no further action
on the matter. No vote occurs because there is no question for the House to decide.
For additional information, see the Parliamentarian’s annotations accompanying House Rule IX;
House Practice, pp. 707-730; and Deschler’s Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives,
vol. 3, pp. 27-143.
James V. Saturno
Section Research Manager, 7-2381