Parliament and Congress: A Brief Comparison of the British House of Commons and the House of Representatives

CRS Report for Congress
Parliament and Congress: A Brief Comparison
of the British House of Commons and the
U.S. House of Representatives
Updated May 19, 2005
R. Eric Petersen
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division

Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

Parliament and Congress: A Brief Comparison of the
House of Commons and the House of Representatives
Although the United States Congress can trace its origins to British Parliament,
the two institutions have evolved in significantly different directions over the past
two centuries. This report provides a brief overview of the parliamentary practices
in the House of Representatives and the British House of Commons focusing on such
issues as membership and qualifications, the role of the Speaker and party or
Government leaders, the role of committees, floor consideration, and second
chambers. In a report of this length, many nuances of procedure and many rarely
used parliamentary practices or traditions, both in the House of Commons and in the
House of Representatives, are necessarily omitted or treated only in a cursory
manner. This report will be updated as events warrant.

Terms of Office and Timing of Elections...........................1
Sizes and Constituencies........................................2
Parties and Their Roles in the Chamber............................3
The Speaker..................................................6
Quorums and Voting...........................................7
Sessional Agendas.............................................8
Committee Systems............................................9
Standing Committees.......................................9
Select Committees.........................................9
Grand Committees........................................10
Committee of the Whole House..............................10
Typical Floor Action..........................................10
Amendment Rules and Practices.................................11
Ordinary Limitations on Debate..................................12
Allocation of Time Orders and Rules from the Rules Committee........13
Adjournment Debates and Special Order/One-Minute Speeches........14
Parliamentary Questions.......................................14
Second Chambers.............................................15
References and Sources........................................16

Parliament and Congress:
A Brief Comparison of the British House of
Commons and the House of
Although the U.S. House of Representatives, along with many other national
and state legislatures, developed its initial parliamentary practices based on the model
of the British House of Commons, the House of Representatives and the House of
Commons have long evolved along quite divergent lines. This report1 briefly
summarizes key features in the legislative procedures of both chambers, although a
systematic comparison would require a substantially longer document.
The fundamental purposes of the chambers are different: the House of
Commons serves as the forum for the formation and maintenance of the Government
which, in turn, is comprised primarily of ministers and deputies drawn from the
majority party or block in the House of Commons; the House of Representatives
exists as a legislative and oversight forum whose policy preferences may or may not
coincide with those of the separately elected government, that is, the presidency and
the rest of the executive branch.
In the House of Commons, the Government’s legislative agenda is,
consequently, the agenda of the House of Commons, and few major policy initiatives
not formally sanctioned by the Government are considered by the House of
Commons. In the U.S. House, the significant work of the session is the funding and
continued maintenance of government programs, but individual Members and
individual leaders can influence the House’s agenda to a degree unheard of in the
Terms of Office and Timing of Elections
Under the Parliament Act, 1911, the duration of a Parliament may not exceed
five years from the date on which the current Parliament first convened. In recent
decades, general elections have generally been held during the fourth year of a
Parliament. The timing of elections is most often determined by the Government
which announces the date on which a general election will be held, usually within 30
days of the announcement. The Government must also formally request the Crown
to dissolve Parliament. On April 5, 2005, the Government announced May 5 as the
date for the general election. The Queen formally dissolved Parliament on April 11.

1 This report was originally written by Paul S. Rundquist, formerly a Specialist in American
National Government at CRS. Dr. Rundquist has retired, but the listed author updated the
report, and is available to answer questions concerning its contents.

After the general election on May 5, the newly elected Parliament convened on May
11 to elect a Speaker, and met again on May 17, 2005, for the formal state opening
of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech.
By comparison, the congressional elections occur on the Tuesday after the first
Monday in November of each even numbered year. The dates of party primary
elections to choose party candidates for the House of Representatives are set by state
law and generally occur in the first six months of the election year.
American national party organizations now often provide primary campaign
assistance for favored candidates. For the House of Commons, constituency
committees composed of local party activists select candidates, often far in advance
of a general election. National party organizations sometimes seek to influence the
selection of the constituency committee, but will generally bow to local preferences
except when a candidate is thought unlikely to support party policies.
In both bodies, vacancies occurring between general elections are filled by
special election. The House of Commons typically orders a special, or by-election,
to be held within three months of the date on which a vacancy occurs. Special
elections for the House of Representatives are regulated by state laws which vary
widely in the speed with which special elections are to be held. In both chambers,
vacancies occurring near a general election are allowed to remain vacant until filled
at the regular election.
Sizes and Constituencies
Various statutes have often altered the size of the House of Commons. In the
most recent parliamentary elections (2005), 646 seats were contested. Of that total
645 Members of Parliament (MPs) were elected, each from a specific electoral
district.2 At times, Parliament has set the number higher or lower as determined by
statutory mandate. In the Parliament elected in 2001, there were 659 MPs. Thirteen
constituencies in Scotland were consolidated to establish relatively similar levels of
representation in English and Scots parliamentary seats. In England, as many as 707
MPs were elected before the establishment of the Irish Free State in the early 20th
century, and as recently as the 1950 parliamentary election, the House of Commons
had only 625 MPs. The number of MPs likely will change before the next general
election, due to proposed boundary adjustments recently issued by the Boundary
Commission for England (described below).
The size of the House of Representatives has been fixed by law at 435 since
1910, although a temporary increase to 437 was permitted to provide seats for
Representatives from Alaska and Hawaii from 1959 to 1961. Four nonvoting
Delegates represent U.S. insular possessions and the District of Columbia. A
Resident Commissioner is elected for a four-year term from Puerto Rico. These
positions are without analog in the House of Commons.

2 During the 2005 general election campaign, a candidate in one British constituency died.
The campaign was vitiated in that constituency, and by-election will be scheduled to fill the
open seat.

With the population of Great Britain now slightly more than 60 million, the
average MP represents a constituency of roughly 91,000. In the allocation of seats,
an English constituency has more people, closely followed by districts in Scotland.
Constituencies in Wales and Northern Ireland are comprised of fewer people. The
average U.S. House district has about 670,000 people. Under the U.S. Constitution,
a Representative must be a resident of the state in which the district he or she
represents is located. In the House of Commons, an MP need only be a British
subject, but it is becoming increasingly rare for MPs to have no residency connection
with their constituencies.
British MPs must be at least 21 years of age, while U.S. Representatives
must be 25 and U.S. Senators, 30. Naturalized British subjects are eligible to seek
election to the House of Commons immediately while naturalized U.S. citizens are
eligible to serve in the House of Representatives after seven years of citizenship and,
in the Senate, after nine.
In the House of Commons, a major enactment in 2000 established an
Electoral Commission. Henceforth, the commission will be responsible for
recommending changes in the number and boundaries of electoral constituencies.
The commission must make recommendations every eight to 12 years concerning
boundary adjustments, based on recommendations from four boundary committees
(one each for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). Recommendations
from each of the committees are sent on to the commission which, after reviewing
and possibly revising them, forwards them to the Home Secretary, who submits them
without change to Parliament. The new boundaries go into effect at the next general
election for the House of Commons.3
So long as Congress does not change either the legal size of the House of
Representatives or the redistricting formula, the reapportionment of seats allotted to
each state on the basis of population is automatic following each decennial census,
with the state legislatures redrawing their House district boundaries. In the event that
a state legislature fails to pass a new reapportionment act, responsibility for
redistricting falls to the courts. By comparison, the decisions of the British Electoral
Commission (when they become law) may not be challenged under any legal
Parties and Their Roles in the Chamber
In modern practice, the Prime Minister is the head of the Government and is
always a member of the majority party or coalition in the House of Commons. The
Cabinet comprises primarily leading House of Commons Members of the majority,
although Members of the House of Lords have served as Cabinet ministers. In fact,
designating someone outside Parliament as a “life peer” has been one recent means
of bringing someone essentially from private life into the Government. Cabinet

3 The number of constituencies and the boundaries of individual constituencies may be
changed on rare occasions, separate from the periodic comprehensive review. For example,
in 1990, the constituency of Milton Keynes, about 30 miles northwest of London, was
divided into two seats because of rapid population growth there.

members are expected to support in public the collective judgment of the
Government and their Cabinet colleagues. A Cabinet minister who cannot support
a major Government policy is expected to resign from his or her post.
Sitting Members of the U.S. Congress cannot simultaneously serve in the
President’s Cabinet, because such service is an “incompatible office” under the
Constitution. Many Presidents, however, offer Cabinet appointments to senior
Members of Congress, who resign in order to accept such appointments. The
examples of Norman Mineta (2003) and Porter Goss (2005) resigning from the
House of Representatives to accept appointments as Secretary of Transportation and
Director of Central Intelligence, respectively, are but two such examples.
The Prime Minister, although head of the Government and an MP, is not the
Leader of the House of Commons. The Leader of the House of Commons, a member
of the Government, is the chief spokesman for the majority party on matters of the
internal operation of the Commons. The office of the Leader issues announcements
of the impending House of Commons schedule, and a routine inquiry from the
Opposition’s counterpart serves as the occasion for the Leader to announce the
business for the next two weeks of session.
The party whips in the House of Commons have many more duties and
powers than their counterparts in the House of Representatives. In both bodies, the
whips are a key communications link between other members of the party and
governmental leadership and rank-and-file members. Whip notices in both are sent
to party members informing them of upcoming chamber action and scheduled
meetings of party organizations. However, the British whip notices also inform party
members of the relative importance of upcoming votes. A so-called “one-line whip”
“requests” the presence of members in the chamber for certain action; a “two-line
whip” announces the possible occurrence of a division vote; and a “three-line whip”
announces that member attendance is required for a matter of vital business, such as
a vote of confidence or passage of the budget. Absence or abstention on a vote taken
after a “three-line whip” will almost certainly cause the imposition of some
disciplinary action against a party member. This can include a written reprimand
from the party chief whip (also communicated to the Member’s constituency party
organization), temporary suspension from the party organization in Parliament, or a
“withdrawal of the whip,” a formal expulsion from the party organization. Whips
also serve as sounding boards and recommending authorities for the appointment of
committees in Parliament, and for the selection of MPs for subcabinet positions or
as spokesmen for the Opposition. In the U.S. Congress, disciplinary action for voting
against the views of party leaders is rare, although Senators and Representatives may
indirectly be sanctioned by denial of assignment to, or leadership positions on,
important committees.
In the House of Commons, party organizations (akin to the Republican
Conference or Democratic Caucus) meet regularly to discuss policy, and to provide
an opportunity for back-bench party Members to voice their views to ministers or
shadow cabinet members in a private forum. It is these organizations which

historically have chosen their party leaders, who in turn become Prime Minister or
Leader of the Opposition.4
Table 1. House Of Commons and
House of Representatives Compared
House ofHouse of
Commons Re presentatives
TermsNo more than five yearsTwo years
ElectionsAt the discretion of theThe first Tuesday after the
Government, approximatelyfirst Monday in November,
30 days followingeven-numbered years
dissolution of the previous
Parliament by the Queen
Qualifications21 years of age25 years of age
Di strict/Constituency 91,000 670,000
Size (Approximate)
Executive ControlYesNo
Seats646 Members435 Members
4 Delegates
1 Resident Commissioner
Parties Represented9a2
DistributionLabour, 356Republican, 231
of SeatsConservative, 197Democrat, 202
Liberal Democrat, 62bIndependent, 1
Others, 28Vacant, 1
Independent, 1
Vacant, 1
Note: Information current as of May 19, 2005.
a. Excludes MPs elected under independent, single issue, or local organizations
b. Other parties and the number of seats they hold, include Democratic Unionist Party, 9; Scottish
National Party, 6; Sinn Fein, 5; Plaid Cymru, 3; Social Democratic & Labour Party, 3; Ulster
Unionist Party, 1; Respect-Unity Coalition, 1; and Independent Kidderminster Hospital and
Health Concern, 1.

4 The Conservative Party provides for a national mail-in ballot election for a new party
leader when the parliamentary party leader resigns. Under this process, Conservative MPs
vote to determine the two leading candidates and, in the mail-in ballot, rank-and-file party
members make the final choice. In the recent leadership transition, no other Conservative
Party MPs challenged the candidacy of Michael Howard, so no mail vote was necessary.

The Speaker
The British Speaker has a long tradition as an impartial presiding officer. To
maintain that impartiality, a Member of Parliament, upon election as Speaker, ceases
his active membership in his political party and, henceforth, acts in private meetings
with MPs in a manner which will not give the impression of party favoritism. If the
Speaker stands at the next general election for re-election to the House of Commons,
traditionally the opposition parties do not field candidates to contest his re-election.
The Speaker is provided with his own personal residence in the Palace of
Westminster, and receives the same salary as a Cabinet minister. When the Speaker
resigns or retires, the Crown traditionally elevates the former Speaker to the House
of Lords.
Traditionally, one is “called to the chair” by one’s colleagues in the House of
Commons. Speakers have had varied backgrounds of prior service, but most in the
post-World War II era have been backbench Members or junior Members of the
whip’s office, and not Cabinet ministers. The most obvious exception to this
tradition was Selwyn Lloyd, Speaker from 1971 to 1976, who previously served in
six different Government posts, including that of Foreign Minister and Minister of
Defence. A rare, multiple ballot election was held leading to the choice of Speaker
Michael Martin in 2000. Typically, the “Father of the House” (longest serving non-
ministerial MP) presides over the election of a Speaker. Informal discussions
between party leaders, back-bench Members, and the Opposition about suitable
candidates have gone on previously. Based on these discussions, the “Father of the
House,” by prearrangement, recognizes an MP who nominates a candidate and
another MP seconds the nomination. The nominee then announces whether he or she
will accept the nomination. In most cases, the House of Commons then votes to
elect. In 2000, an MP moved “That Mr. Michael Martin do take the Chair of this
House as Speaker.” Before this motion could be voted upon, another MP moved to
amend it by striking Martin’s name and inserting the name of Sir David Haselhurst
instead. The House of Commons then voted on the amendment and rejected it. Ten
other names were put forth by way of amendment, and each was rejected.
Ultimately, after more than seven hours of consideration, the House of Commons
chose Martin as Speaker by a vote of 370 yeas and 8 nays, with many abstentions.
The Speaker traditionally has come from the majority party in the House of
Commons, although Betty Bothroyd, the first female Speaker of the House, chosen
in 1992, was a Labor MP chosen in a Conservative-controlled House of Commons.
The Speaker is assisted as presiding officer by three deputy speakers, and care is
exercised to see that the four potential presiding officers come from both sides of the
House of Commons, Government and Opposition. The senior Deputy Speaker is also
known as the Chairman of Ways and Means, who normally presides over the
Committee of the Whole House (for consistency and clarity, the U.S. equivalent is
referred to in this report as the Committee of the Whole).
The Speaker and deputies, as well as the chairs of standing committees, have
substantial powers. They can determine which portions (if any) of a bill may be
amended, and have substantial discretion in limiting debate time. Unlike the House
of Representatives, which tends to operate under the “five-minute rule” limiting the
time of speeches in committee and in Committee of the Whole, no formal time limits

are imposed in the House of Commons, but the chair (in the chamber or in
committee) in the House of Commons can withdraw recognition from a Member who
speaks too long or off the point. It is not unusual for House of Commons Members
to be informally sanctioned for speaking too long, and it is customary for a Member
to cede the floor after losing the attention of the Commons.
Quorums and Voting
In both chambers of Congress, a quorum is always presumed to be present,
and few opportunities exist for delay by demanding a quorum call. In the House of
Representatives, a quorum is 218 Members in the House (assuming that no seats are
vacant) and 100 Members in Committee of the Whole. The absence of a quorum
cannot be called to the chair’s attention except on the occasion of a vote in the House
or in Committee of the Whole.
The chair, on his own authority, can recognize a Member to move a “call of
the House.” Typically, such a call occurs before major action on the House floor or
in Committee of the Whole to ensure that most Members are present, for example,
to hear closing speeches on a major issue. However, the chair’s discretion in these
matters is absolute.
The House of Commons has banned “a count of the House” since a rules
change in 1971. A quorum is always presumed present, except that no vote is official
if fewer than 40 Members participate. If fewer than the requisite number of Members
vote, the pending business stands over to the next sitting day, and the next item of
business on the daily agenda is immediately put forward in its place.
In both the House of Commons and the House of Representatives, voice votes
automatically are taken, and when the chair is in doubt or a Member demands it, a
more formal vote occurs. A single Member may demand a division (standing vote)5
in the House of Representatives and in Committee of the Whole; a recorded teller
vote in Committee of the Whole (a second of 25 Members is required, and the names
and votes are recorded by the electronic voting machine); or a yea-nay vote in the
House of Representatives (a second of 44 Members is required, and names and votes
are also recorded through the electronic voting machine). A recorded teller vote or
yea-nay vote is automatic if a vote is objected to on the grounds that a quorum is
In the House of Commons, a Member who challenges the Speaker’s or
Chairman’s call on a voice vote may demand a division. Members vote by going into
either the “yea” or “nay” lobbies, where Members’ names are taken down by clerks,
and the Members are counted as they leave by two “tellers” (one teller who has voted
“yea” and one “nay” in each lobby) who record the vote totals. The vote totals in each

5 In the House of Commons, the Speaker may (on rare occasions) interrupt a more formal
vote and require a vote in which Members stand in their places and are counted by the chair.
The standing vote can be used instead of the House of Commons’ more formal “division”
when a small minority has persisted in demanding divisions. However, a division vote in
the House of Commons is certain to occur when demanded by a major party.

lobby are announced by the Speaker or Chairman. The names of MPs and their votes
are published in Hansard (the British equivalent of the Congressional Record). As
noted above, if fewer than 40 Members enter the voting lobbies ( including the four
tellers and the Speaker or Chairman who does not vote), no quorum is present and
the question is put over until the next meeting day, whereupon it will be voted on
Both the House of Commons and the House of Representatives attempt to
reduce the amount of time consumed by votes. Normally, a division vote in the
House of Commons and a recorded or yea-nay vote in the House of Representatives
take 15 minutes. In the House of Representatives, the Speaker or the Chairman of
the Committee of the Whole may reduce to five minutes the amount of time for
subsequent votes when a number of votes are expected in quick succession. The time
for the second and subsequent House of Commons division votes usually drops to
between 10 and 12 minutes.
Both bodies also permit votes to be postponed for the convenience of
Members. In the House of Representatives, the Speaker and the Chairman of the
Committee of the Whole have the authority to postpone any yea-nay or recorded
votes. The Chairman may postpone a vote to a more convenient time during the
sitting of the Committee of the Whole and the Speaker may postpone a yea-nay vote
in the House of Representatives for up to two session days. Most commonly, the
postponement authority relates to votes on motions (in order on Mondays, Tuesdays,
and Wednesdays) to “suspend the rules and pass” relatively non-controversial bills
which require a two-thirds vote for success. Typically, the Speaker will postpone
votes on suspension bills until Tuesday evening or Wednesday to permit Members
to remain longer in their districts without missing chamber votes. In the House of
Commons, if a Member presses for a vote on business (except for votes on bills or
on amendments) after 10 p.m., the vote is deferred until 3:30 p.m. the following
Wednesday. At that time, Members may vote via written forms on which all the
previously deferred questions are listed. The forms must be submitted between 3:30
and 5:00 p.m. At a convenient time thereafter, the Speaker announces the result of
the votes.
Sessional Agendas
In neither the United States nor the United Kingdom is the precise duration
of a congressional or parliamentary annual session known in advance. In the House
of Commons, a typical annual session now covers about 150 meeting days. Out of
these 150 days, the chamber business on 20 session days is controlled by the
Opposition to debate such issues as the Leader of the Opposition may propose.
(Seventeen days are controlled by the principal opposition party and three days by the
next-largest minority party, although arrangements are sometimes made to provide
time for still smaller parties.) The Opposition may not bring a piece of legislation
before the House of Commons on those days, but can force an intense debate on a
significant policy matter. In recent years, the Opposition has often chosen to force
a debate on two topics (with time for each debate limited roughly to three hours).
Thirteen Fridays during each annual session are reserved for private (non-
ministerial) Members’ business. Of several ways in which ordinary MPs may present

bills, a Private Members’ Ballot is the process most likely to be successful. Early in
each annual session, a “backbench” Member who is interested in introducing a bill
submits his name for a drawing to determine which Members will be permitted to
bring in their own bill. At the drawing, supervised by a Deputy Speaker and a senior
member of the Clerk’s office, 20 names are drawn. The MPs chosen will be able to
bring in a bill, and to pick a specific Friday during the session for the first reading of
the bill. Private Member bills with “cross-bench” (bipartisan) support obviously
stand a better chance of success in the legislative process.
Another opportunity for backbench Members to propose legislation is so-
called “10-minute rule” consideration. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays after early
session business is completed, Members may offer motions for “leave to bring in a
bill” on a specified subject. Only one Member per day may be recognized for this
purpose. The Member recognized is given roughly ten minutes to explain the
purpose of the proposed bill and a Member may seek recognition to speak against the
motion. In recent years, the House of Commons has agreed to allow bills to be
brought in about 50 times annually. It is extremely rare, however, for such bills to
progress through the entire legislative process.
No similar processes exist in the House of Representatives. Legislative
proposals coming from the White House must be introduced by a Member of the
House of Representatives, often with the notation that the bill is introduced “by
request.” There is no limitation on the number of bills any House of Representatives
Member may introduce, but no chamber action typically occurs on these bills (except
for their automatic referral to committee) at the time of their introduction. The
House of Commons determines which bills it wishes actually to consider. By
comparison, the House of Representatives typically leaves such matters to its
standing committees because the House will rarely consider a measure if it has not
first been endorsed by the standing committee to which it was referred.
Committee Systems
The House of Commons has developed several different types of committees,
each generally used for specific purposes.
Standing Committees. The term “standing committee” could be
misleading to American observers because a standing committee in the House of
Commons is not permanent, but rather is appointed for the consideration of a specific
bill. The term refers to the fact that committee members stand when they speak,
rather than sit around a dais or table. An all-party Committee of Selection
recommends appointments to a standing committee based on the subject of the bill
to be considered and the relevant expertise or interest of particular MPs from the
different parties. The committees debate the bills referred to them and may consider
and dispose of amendments offered by committee members.
Select Committees. A parliamentary select committee comprises
backbench Members who typically serve on the panel for the duration of a
Parliament. Select committees are typically oversight committees that review
executive department operations (there is generally one select committee for each
department); review internal operations of the House of Commons; and review

specified major policy areas (for example, regulatory reform, human rights, and
public accounts). The House of Commons occasionally decides to refer a bill to a
select committee, but the primary purpose of select committees is to gather
information and issue reports to the House of Commons. A few select committees
are joint committees with Members from both the House of Commons and House of
Grand Committees. Grand committees currently consider legislation
dealing with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. All House of Commons
Members from the relevant country or province serve on the appropriate grand
committee, and a limited number of additional MPs may be named to serve. Since
the passage of devolution legislation affecting Scotland and Wales, and because of
the 1998 Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland, the importance of the three grand
committees has declined in recent years.
Committee of the Whole House. The House of Commons developed the
concept of the Committee of the Whole, and its practice spread to the colonial
legislatures and, from there, on to the U.S. Congress. Although the House of
Representatives routinely uses the Committee of the Whole to consider measures in
a detailed fashion and to permit consideration of many amendments under tight time
limitations, the Committee of the Whole House in the Commons has been less
frequently used in recent years than in the past. When the Government submits the
budget, it does so when the Commons is in Committee of the Whole House. Many
routine measures are now considered in Committee of the Whole House, rather than
in a standing committee.
In the House of Representatives, service on standing committees is relatively
permanent and the chairmanships are always held by majority party members, unlike
the House of Commons where chairs are allocated among all major parties. The
contemporary House of Representatives makes relatively less use than it did formerly
of temporary select committees created to study and report on specific subjects,
although select committees were created by the House in the 107th and 108th
Congresses to consider legislation related to the relatively new issue of homeland
security. In the 109th Congress, the House created the Committee on Homeland
Security as a permanent, standing panel. The four joint committees in Congress
either handle internal administrative matters (Library and Printing) or study major
policy issues (Economic and Taxation). The House of Representatives’ widespread
use of subcommittees is not matched in the House of Commons.
Typical Floor Action
In the House of Commons, the major legislation of the session is controlled
by the Government. When the Government proposes a measure, it is introduced in
the House of Commons by the minister representing the department which will
handle the administration of the measure if enacted. This so-called “first reading”
of the bill is typically done without debate, and a date is generally set then for a
second reading debate on the measure.
The concept of each bill having three readings (which the House of
Representatives still follows in theory if not exact practice) originated in the House

of Commons when it was difficult to provide printed copies of bills to all MPs and
when universal literacy among MPs was not the case.
A second reading debate is concerned with the broad principles of a bill.
Amendments are not permitted and Opposition spokesmen generally indicate their
views (oppose totally, support with varying degrees of enthusiasm, or oppose with
intention to offer significant amendments); and backbench MPs also give evidence
of their views on the pending measure. A division of the House can be had after the
second reading debate as a test of support for the concept. It is extraordinarily rare
for a measure to fail a second reading vote, but a large number of abstentions from
Government backbench Members, or even votes by them against the measure may
signal major difficulties with the bill later. After the second reading, bills are
generally referred to standing committees (in about three-quarters of the cases), or are
committed to the Committee of the Whole House (about a quarter of all Government
Committee consideration of a major bill in the House of Commons can be
protracted, especially when committee members appear eager to recommend large
numbers of amendments to it. When the committee votes to report the measure back
to the House of Commons, the Government and the Government majority must
determine its strategy. The Government may decide to accede to all recommended
amendments to its bill, or may seek to overturn the committee’s recommendations
on some or all amendments. Once the House of Commons has disposed of the
committee-recommended amendments, the Commons agrees to the bill by agreeing
to the motion to order a third reading on the bill.
In the United States, the first reading technically occurs when the House of
Representatives takes up the bill and the third reading just prior to a vote on final
passage. A formal second reading in the House of Representatives is now something
of a phantom. “Reading the bill for amendment in Committee of the Whole” could
be considered a second reading, but, in that case, bills not considered in Committee
of the Whole are read only a first and third time. The procedural significance of
these differences is not great in practical terms, although in the House of Commons
passage of a bill occurs on the motion to order the third reading while in the House
of Representatives, “ordering the third reading” freezes the text of the bill and
prohibits the offering of further amendments prior to a later vote on final passage.
The “motion to recommit” in the House of Representatives can be offered
after the “third reading” is ordered and before the vote on final passage. The motion
is an opportunity for the minority party, if it so chooses, to move to return a bill to
committee with instructions that the committee return to the House immediately with
a bill in the form demanded by the minority party. This motion assures that the
minority can obtain a vote on its preferred version of major legislation and force the
majority to go on record against its alternative. There is no direct analog to this
process in the House of Commons.
Amendment Rules and Practices
The amendment rules of the two chambers differ significantly. Both bodies
recognize a ban on third-degree amendments. But the House of Commons (in

committee and on the floor) bans substitute amendments (those which strike an entire
text and replace it with an alternative proposal). Thus, an amendment in the House
of Commons can be subjected to a series of perfecting amendments which do not
replace the text of the underlying amendment in its entirety. In the House of
Representatives, a first-degree amendment can have offered to it a second-degree
perfecting amendment. In addition, a substitute amendment can also be offered,
which in turn can be the subject of second-degree perfecting amendments as well.
Thus, only two amendments may be pending simultaneously on the House of
Commons floor or in committees, while as many as four amendments can be pending
at the same time in the U.S. House Committee of the Whole or standing committees.
A bill considered only in the House of Representatives (and not in Committee of the
Whole) is considered under the One-Hour Rule. The Member managing the bill is
recognized for one hour, and normally yields half of that time “for purposes of debate
only” to a minority party Member. The manager will usually offer the previous
question motion, and unless that motion is defeated, no amendments can ordinarily
be offered to the bill.
The power to select amendments is a major power of the Speaker and chairs
in the House of Commons and has no precise analog in the U.S. House. Limitations
on the right of Members to offer properly drawn amendments occur in the House of
Representatives and its committees only pursuant to a Rule from the Rules
Committee, under a motion “to suspend the Rules and pass” a bill, under provisions
in an “expedited procedure” statute (such as the Budget Act), by unanimous consent,
or, in the case of U.S. House committees, by internal committee rule.
Ordinary Limitations on Debate
In the House of Representatives (but not in Committee of the Whole), the
rules permit the offering of a motion to order the previous question. The motion is
not debatable or amendable, and if agreed to by the House of Representatives by
majority vote with a majority quorum present, precludes any further debate and
amendments on the pending issue, and brings about a vote on final passage. In the
House of Commons, a closure motion can be offered at any time on a pending matter,
but unlike the U.S. Congress, the Speaker of the House of Commons can rule such
a motion out of order on the grounds that sufficient opportunity for debate has not
been afforded. The Speaker’s decision is not subject to appeal.
The closure motion stops all debate and further amendments if agreed to, and
can be offered in either the House of Commons, the Committee of the Whole House,
or in a standing committee. In the House of Representatives, the comparable
previous question motion cannot be offered in Committee of the Whole. There, a
motion to end debate is used, and that motion, if agreed to, ends debate either on the
pending section of the bill or on the bill in its entirety, but does not preclude the
offering of further amendments without debate. The motion may be offered in a form
ending debate immediately or at a specified future time. Under some circumstances,
additional limited debate may be permitted on amendments submitted in advance and
printed in the Congressional Record but which had not been called up at the time
debate was ended.

Allocation of Time Orders and Rules from the Rules
In the House of Representatives, debate time is rigidly controlled. Members
may be recognized to speak for no more than one hour (and typically this time is
divided equally between the parties), although the time permitted normally is
controlled in five-minute (the Five-Minute Rule, used generally for debating
amendments) blocks. In the House of Commons, no general limit on debate time
exists, although MPs must speak without prepared remarks. The House of
Commons’ Speaker can take MPs off their feet if they stray from the subject under
debate or lose the attention of the House.
In order to manage the time for its deliberations, the House of Commons
occasionally adopts extraordinary limitations on parliamentary practices. These
supplementary procedures are enforced through the adoption of an Allocation of
Time Order (known more colloquially as a “guillotine”), quite similar in some
respects to a special rule from the Rules Committee. Typically, these motions set a
time limit for debate at a particular stage in the process, and often also include
specifications for completing subsequent legislative stages of a bill, or provide for
the division of consideration time among the relevant parliamentary parties.
Recently, the House of Commons has been experimenting with so-called
“programming motions.” These motions, like those just described, seek to set
limitations and timetables for various stages of the legislative process and are
established in response to pressure from backbenchers for more session
predictability. Programming motions come from the committee (usually a
“programming subcommittee”) considering a particular bill. They generally set a
date for the completion of committee consideration of the bill, and a timetable for
action by the Commons to consider the committee’s report, and steps to get to the
third reading. The programming motions are considered on the floor of the House
of Commons either without debate (if the Government agrees to the timetable), or,
if not, with up to 45 minutes’ debate. A previously adopted programming motion
may be revised by a subsequent programming motion considered under similar time
In the House of Representatives, the Rules Committee performs a more
continuous role in structuring floor debate and amendments to pending significant
bills. The Rules Committee membership currently is set at nine majority and four
minority members, and its members are elected by the House of Representatives
upon the recommendation of the Speaker and the Minority Leader, subject to a vote
of approval from their respective party caucus or conference. The House of
Representatives may agree to upwards of 100 rules from the Rules Committee per
session, and significant numbers of these rules limit the Members’ amendment rights
as set forth in the regular rules of the House, and also limit the amount of time for
debate on a bill and any or all amendments.

Adjournment Debates and Special Order/One-Minute
Adjournment debates in the House of Commons serve much the same
purpose as special order speeches do in the House of Representatives. At the
completion of the daily legislative agenda, the Leader of the House of Commons
moves that the House adjourn. This motion is debated for 30 minutes. The subject
to be debated during this 30-minute block is chosen by ballot among private
Members of the House of Commons. Thus, matters of local interest or matters not
presently the subject of action by the Government can be brought to the House of
Commons by the concerted efforts of nongovernment Members. Government
ministers are expected to participate in these debates, especially when the conduct of
their departments is the subject of debate. On rare occasions, adjournment debates
may be crucial: it was an adjournment debate in May 1940 which led to the fall of the
Chamberlain Government and Winston Churchill’s emergence as Prime Minister.
Similarly, in the House of Representatives, the Majority Leader or his
designee announces that the House has completed its scheduled legislative work for
the day. Thereafter (but before the House officially adjourns), Members may be
recognized by the Speaker to address the House for specified periods of time (but for
no more than one hour) to speak on such subjects as they wish. In recent years, these
time periods have been used by the parties or factions within a party to discuss policy
subjects of concern to them. Under current House of Representatives practice,
minority party Members are given preference in recognition during this period.
The House of Commons has recently provided for adjournment debates on
Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. Five debate subjects are usually provided for on
each day, with two 90-minute debates, followed by three half-hour debates. This is
similar to the recent House of Representatives practice of permitting “Morning Hour”
debates on certain days of the week, for periods not to exceed ninety minutes.
The House of Representatives’ long-standing custom of permitting, at the
Speaker’s discretion, one-minute speeches at the beginning of a session day seems
to have no analog in the House of Commons.
Parliamentary Questions
On four meeting days each week, Cabinet Ministers respond to oral questions
from rank-and-file MPs. The practice has never been adopted in the House of
Representatives, although proposals for experimental use of a question period have
been offered periodically in Congress. All Cabinet Ministers are expected to
participate in the oral question process on a regularly scheduled basis, and the Prime
Minister now appears at noon on Wednesdays for 30 minutes. The Leader of the
Opposition is entitled to offer six questions to the Prime Minister during this period,
and the leader of the second-largest opposition party, two.
MPs who wish to ask questions for oral answer submit their questions two
weeks in advance of a minister’s scheduled appearance. A drawing is held to
determine which questions will be asked in which order, although only a few will

actually be reached in practice. A Member may, if his question was not reached,
defer his it to a later date, withdraw it, or submit it for written response. Literally
thousands of written response questions are submitted to ministers annually. On an
urgent matter, an MP may consult the Speaker about recognition for a so-called
“private notice question.” If the Speaker believes the matter is of an urgent character,
the MP raising the question will notify the minister concerned, and the private notice
question will be addressed after the completion of the regularly scheduled oral
question period.
Second Chambers
The U.S. Senate is perhaps the most powerful second chamber of any national
bicameral legislature. If a measure cannot be passed in identical form in both the
House of Representatives and Senate, it cannot be sent to the President for his
Although the influence of the British House of Lords has increased in the last
several decades, the House of Commons still has the ultimate say in legislative
matters. With the exception of money bills (which go to the Queen for the Royal
Assent if the House of Lords has not passed them within one month of receipt), the
House of Lords may amend virtually any measure sent to it by the House of
Commons. If the House of Commons rejects the House of Lords’ amendment and
the Lords insists upon it, the Commons has the ultimate say in breaking the impasse.
If the House of Commons passes the bill in essentially the same form a second time
in the next annual session, it will be sent to the Crown for the Royal Assent without
action by the House of Lords.
The House of Lords Act, 1999 made fundamental changes in the composition
of the House of Lords. Hereditary peers were no longer to be assured of a place in
the House of Lords. Under the terms of the act, 75 hereditary peers were to be
chosen by all hereditary peers to serve as voting Members of the House of Lords until
the passage of a further reform act (at some time in the future) abolished totally the
presence of hereditary peers in the House of Lords. In April, 2005, the 691 Peers
came from the following categories: 74 hereditary peers, 15 hereditary peers holding
elected office in the House of Lords, 25 bishops of the Church of England, 575 life
peers, and two hereditary royal office holders. These totals exclude 14 Peers who are
on leave of absence.
The life peers are named by the Queen on the recommendation of an advisory
commission composed of peers representing all parties. There are two categories of
life peerages. Under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876, life peers are appointed to
serve as Lords of Appeal and serve as members the final forum of judicial appeal in
the United Kingdom The Life Peerages Act 1958 created peerages as mark of
accomplishment in a wide variety of professions, including government, business,
and the arts. During the first Parliament of the current Labour Government (1997-

2001), more than 233 life peers were created.

References and Sources
A report of this type is necessarily catalectic. Interested readers may wish to
consult some additional sources that treat the British Parliament in a more
comprehensive or authoritative manner. The standard reference work for British
parliamentary practice, which is also used as a precedent guide for many British
Commonwealth parliaments, is Erskine May’s Treatise on The Law, Privileges,
Proceedings and Usage of Parliament. The 23rd edition, edited by Donald Limon,
W.R. McKay, and others, was published in 2004. J.A.G. Griffith and Michael Ryle
are the authors (1989) of Parliament: Functions, Practice and Procedures. A second
edition, prepared by Robert Blackburn and Andrew Kennon, was published in 2002.
A shorter and less technical work is How Parliament Works, fifth edition, 2004, by
Paul Silk and Rhodri Walters. The monumental comparative study, Parliament and
Congress, by Kenneth Bradshaw and David Pring, last revised in 1981, is now out
of print and significantly dated in its treatment of both legislatures. The British
Parliament also has an extensive amount of educational materials on its website,
[ h ttp://] .
The best one-volume official American parliamentary manuals comparable
to Erskine May are Wm. Holmes Brown and Charles W. Johnson, House Practice
(2003) and Alan Frumin, rev., Riddick’s Senate Procedure (1992). The most widely
used survey of American legislative procedures is Walter Oleszek, Congressional
Procedures and the Policy Process, sixth edition, 2004. The U.S. Congress’s
website, [] (available only to Members of Congress and
their staff), and Thomas [], have a substantial amount of
educational material, in particular the collection of reports on parliamentary
procedures at the House Rules Committee’s website, [].