Private Bills: Procedure in the House
Richard S. Beth, Specialist in Legislative Process
July 21, 1998
A private bill is one providing benefits to specified individuals (including
corporate bodies). Individuals sometimes request relief through private law
when administrative or legal remedies are exhausted, but Congress seems
more often to view private legislation as appropriate in cases for which no
other remedy is available, and when its enactment would, in a broad sense,
afford equity. From 1817 through 1971, most Congresses enacted hundreds
of private laws, but since then the number has declined sharply, as
Congress has expanded agency discretion to deal with many of the
situations that tended to give rise to private bills. Private provisions also are
occasionally included in public legislation.
Subjects of Private Bills
No House rule defines what bills qualify as private, but most private bills
have official titles stating them to be "for the benefit of" named individuals.
House Rule XXII, clause 2(a) prohibits private bills for granting pensions,
building bridges, correcting military or naval records, or settling claims
eligible for action under the Tort Claims Act (Title 28 U.S. Code). Subjects
of contemporary private bills (and House committees receiving referral of
those bills) include:
- Immigration (e.g., naturalization, residency status, visa
- Claims against the government: Judiciary (domestic claims); and
- International Relations (foreign claims).
- Patents and copyrights: Judiciary.
- Vessel documentation: Transportation and Infrastructure.
- Taxation (e.g., income tax liability, tariff exemptions): Ways and
- Public lands (e.g., sales, claims, exchanges, mineral leases):
- Veterans' benefits: Veterans' Affairs.
- Civil Service status: Government Reform and Oversight.
- Medical (e.g., FDA approvals, HMO enrollment requirements):
- Armed services decorations: National Security.
Introduction of Private Bills
Private bills are introduced and referred in the same way as other
measures. They are commonly introduced by the Member who represents
the individual to be benefitted. Seldom are companion bills introduced in
both chambers. Cosponsors have occasionally appeared on private bills that
attract broad interest, though House Rule XXII (clauses 1 and 4(b)(1))
permits no cosponsorship on private bills.
Immigration and claims matters are the most common subjects of private
bills (though private immigration bills have recently become more
infrequent). The Committee on the Judiciary refers these to its
Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, which has established rules and
routine procedures for processing them. Committees that handle other
kinds of private legislation have no similarly institutionalized procedures.
The Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims generally takes no action on
a private bill unless its sponsor submits specified documentation and
requests a hearing. The sponsor is generally the only witness at this
hearing. The panel usually declines to report a private bill if its records
show few precedents for favorable House action on bills dealing with
similar conditions. It makes available to Member offices information on
what documentation it requires, and the kinds of bills on which it is likely to
take favorable action.
House Rule XXIV, clause 6, establishes special procedures for the
consideration of private bills. When reported, private bills go on a special
calendar, the Private Calendar (technically, the "Calendar of the Committee
of the Whole House;" House Rule XIII, clause 1). Consideration of bills on
this calendar is in order on the first and third Tuesday of each month,
though the House often dispenses with the call by unanimous consent.
Each bill is called up automatically, in the order in which it was reported
and placed on the calendar. The bills are considered "in the House as in
Committee of the Whole," meaning that there is no period of general
debate, but debate and amendment may occur under the five-minute rule.
Usually, little debate occurs and measures are disposed of by voice vote.
During the call of the Private Calendar, if two Members object to the
consideration of any bill, it is automatically recommitted. Each party
appoints official objectors, who are responsible for scrutinizing bills on the
Private Calendar and objecting to those they deem inappropriate.
Sometimes, a member of a subcommittee dealing with immigration or
claims bills has served simultaneously as an official objector. In practice,
instead of objecting, objectors will often ask that a bill be "passed over,
without prejudice," thereby giving sponsors an opportunity to discuss
concerns with them informally before the next calendar call.
If a private bill is recommitted, the committee may re-report it as a
paragraph of an omnibus private bill, which has priority for consideration on
the third Tuesday of each month. [See CRS Report 98-142 GOV, Days
Reserved for Special Business in the House.] At this stage, the
substance of each original private bill may be defeated by majority vote, by
means of a motion to strike the paragraph out of the omnibus bill.
Otherwise, each paragraph may be amended only by reducing amounts of
money or providing limitations. After an omnibus private bill is passed, it is
broken up again into separate bills for further action. In current practice,
committees seldom re-report private measures once recommitted.
Further proceedings on private bills follow the general lawmaking process.
Private bills have sometimes been vetoed by Presidents, often by pocket
veto; otherwise, Congress may override the veto in the same way as for
public measures. Either house of Congress may also, by resolution, refer a
private claims bill to the Court of Claims for a recommendation from a trial
commissioner. These recommendations are requested occasionally, but
often followed when requested.