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House and Senate Adopt Joint Rules

April 15, 1789

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The framers of the Constitution expected the Senate and House to disagree often and profoundly. Perhaps they were not surprised, then, to learn in the spring of 1789 that the two chambers were having difficulty agreeing on a set of joint rules to govern their basic operations. While nearly every state legislature in the nation operates under some form of joint rules, Congress tried for 100 years, with mixed results, and eventually gave up.

The March 1789 shift from the one-chambered Congress under the Articles of Confederation to a bicameral Congress under the U.S. Constitution required members of the new Senate and House to consider various housekeeping changes. The old Congress had one secretary, one chaplain, one set of committees, and one code of rules. Now there would be two of each. As soon as the Senate and House began operations in April, they appointed committees to prepare separate rules for each chamber and joint rules to coordinate dealings between the chambers. Although they quickly agreed on joint rules providing for conference committees and a process for electing chaplains, three months passed before they got together on additional joint rules.

The seven joint rules of 1789 included procedures for transferring enacted legislation to the other body, or to the president. While the Constitution requires the president to deliver an annual message to Congress, these rules set procedures by which Congress could address the president. Joint Rule 7 provided that such an address "shall be presented to him in his audience Chamber by the President of the Senate, in the presence of the Speaker and both Houses."

Both bodies agreed to additional joint rules during the 19th century, including banning the sale of intoxicating liquors in the Capitol and establishing procedures for counting electoral ballots in joint session, but they never brought consistency to the entire set through a general revision. This process raised two essential procedural questions. Could one body repeal a joint rule without the other's consent? Was it necessary for the House, all of whose members' terms expired every two years, to readopt the joint rules at the start of each Congress? By 1889, after 100 years of trying to maintain workable and up to date joint rules, both houses abandoned the effort in favor of informal understandings, or provisions of law.