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The Committee System in the U.S. Congress

Carol Hardy Vincent
Specialist in American National Government
Government Division
Congressional Research Service
The Library of Congress 

May 10, 1995 

Summary

Due to the high volume and complexity of its work, Congress divides its tasks among approximately 44 committees with 154 subcommittees. The House and Senate each has its own committee systems, which are similar. Within chamber guidelines, however, each committee adopts its own rules; thus, there is considerable variation among panels. 

Standing committees generally have legislative jurisdiction and most operate with subcommittees that handle a committee's work in specific areas. Some select committees have more narrow legislative jurisdictions, while others and the joint committees are chiefly for oversight or housekeeping tasks. 

The chair of each committee and a majority of its members come from the majority party. The chair primarily controls a committee's business. Each party is predominantly responsible for assigning its members to committees, and each committee distributes its members among its subcommittees. There are limits on the number and types of panels any one Member may serve on and chair. 

Approximately 2,000 staff assist committees. Committees receive varying levels of operating funds and employ varying numbers of aides. Each hires and fires its own staff. Whereas most committee staff and resources are controlled by its majority party members, a portion is committed to the minority. 

Several thousand measures are referred to committees during each Congress. Committees select a small percentage for consideration, and those not addressed often receive no further action. Determining the fate of measures and, in effect, helping to set a chamber's agenda make committees powerful. 

When a committee or subcommittee wishes to take up a measure, it usually takes four actions. First, it asks relevant executive agencies for written comments on the measure. Second, it holds hearings to gather information and views from non-committee experts. Before the committee, these witnesses summarize submitted statements, then respond to questions from Members. (Other types of hearings focus on the implementation and administration of programs [oversight] or allegations of wrongdoing [investigative].) Third, a committee meets to revise or perfect the measure through amendments, and non-committee members sometimes attempt to influence the language. Fourth, if language is agreed upon, the committee sends the measure back to the chamber, usually along with a written report describing its purposes and provisions and the work of the committee thereon. 

The influence of committees over measures extends to their enactment into law. A committee that considers a measure will manage the full chamber's deliberation on it. Also, its members will be appointed to any conference committee created to reconcile the two chambers' differing versions of a measure. 

The Committee System in the U.S. Congress

Introduction

Decentralization is the most distinctive characteristic of the committee system. Because of the high volume and complexity of its work, Congress divides its legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks among about 200 committees and subcommittees. Within assigned areas of jurisdiction, they gather information; compare and evaluate legislative alternatives; identify policy problems and propose solutions to them; select, determine the text of, and report out measures for the full chambers to consider; monitor the executive branch's performance of its duties (oversight); and look into allegations of wrongdoing (investigation). Thus, still apt today is Woodrow Wilson's century-old observation that "Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work." 

Although Congress has used committees since its first meetings in 1789, the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act set the foundation of today's committee system. The House and Senate each have their own committees and related rules of procedure, which are similar. Within the guidelines of chamber rules, however, each committee adopts its own rules addressing organizational, structural, and procedural issues; thus, there is considerable variation among panels. 

Committees operate within their respective areas of responsibility rather independently of each other and of their chambers. The difficult tasks of aggregating committees' activities, and of integrating policy in areas where jurisdiction is shared, fall largely to the chambers' party leaderships. 

Structure and Organization

Types of Committees

There are three types of committees--standing; select; and joint(1) 

Standing committees are permanent panels identified in chamber rules, which also list the jurisdiction of each. In their areas, they consider bills and issues and recommend measures for consideration by the respective chambers, and conduct oversight of agencies, programs, and activities. Most standing committees recommend authorized levels of funds for government operations and for new and existing programs within their jurisdiction, but a few have other functions. For example, the Appropriations Committees review the suggested authorization levels, then recommend the level of funds to be appropriated. The Budget Committees establish the aggregates for total spending and revenue within functional budget categories, which serve as guidelines for the work of the authorizing and appropriating panels. 

Select (special/other) committees may be permanent or temporary. They are sometimes created to conduct investigations and studies, sometimes to consider measures. Often one is established because the existing standing committee system does not address an issue effectively, or because a particular event sparks interest in an investigation. 

Joint committees are usually permanent panels that conduct studies or perform housekeeping tasks rather than consider measures. Members of both chambers serve on them. A conference committee is a temporary joint committee formed to resolve differences in Senate- and House-passed versions of a particular measure. 

Subcommittees

Most committees form subcommittees to which they assign such specific tasks as oversight and the initial consideration of measures in particular areas of the committee's jurisdiction. Subcommittees are responsible to and work within guidelines established by their parent committees. Their number, independence, and autonomy vary among committees; but, because of their overall numbers and prerogatives, some observers have characterized the congressional system as "subcommittee government." 

In the 104th Congress, there are 19 standing committees with 84 subcommittees in the House and 1 select committee with 2 subcommittees. In the Senate, there are 16 standing committees with 68 subcommittees, and 4 other committees with no subcommittees. Also, there are 4 joint committees with no subcommittees. The total number of 198 committees and subcommittees reflects a decline of nearly 100 panels over the past two Congresses. 

Composition

Party leaders generally determine the total size of committees and the ratio of majority to minority members on each of them. House committees vary from 10 to 61 members, with an average of about 40. Senate committees are smaller, varying from 6 to 28; most have between 16 and 20. Members of both parties serve on each committee, with the majority party having more seats (except on the "ethics" committees, which have an equal number from each party) and chairing each panel. 

Each party is primarily responsible for assigning its members to committees, and once assigned to a particular committee a Member often makes a career there. Each committee distributes its members among its subcommittees, on which only members of the committee may serve. There are limits on the number and type of committees and subcommittees on which each Member may serve. Representatives average 5 panels while Senators average 10. Members, especially in the House, tend to specialize in the issues of their assigned committees, and to rely on colleagues, staff, and constituents for information on other issues. 

Staff

Approximately 2,000 aides provide professional, administrative, and clerical support to committees. Their main job is to assist with writing, analyzing, amending, and recommending measures to the full chamber; but they assist with all committee activities. Committees receive varying levels of operating funds for all expenses, including the hiring of staff. Each hires (and fires) its own staff, and committees employ varying numbers of aides ranging from a few to dozens. Most staff and resources are controlled by the majority party members of a committee, although a portion must be shared with minority party members. Also, each committee sets staff pay levels. The top authorized annual salary is $122,932 for House committee staff, and $130,915 for Senate committee staff. 

Leadership

A committee's authority is centered in its chair, who is usually the majority party member with the longest committee service. A chair's prerogatives usually include determining the committee's agenda, deciding when to take or delay action, presiding during meetings, and controlling most funds. However, several rules allow others a share in controlling a committee's business, such as one allowing a majority of members of a committee to call a meeting. Also, the ranking minority member, usually the minority party member of longest committee service, often participates in the chair's regulation of the committee, in addition to leading on matters affecting a committee's minority members. 

To distribute committee power, there are limits on the number of chair or ranking minority positions a single Member may hold. Also, each subcommittee has a chair and a ranking minority member who oversee the affairs of their panel, and rules also limit a Member's subcommittee leadership positions. Only House Republicans have leadership term limits; no Republican may serve as chair (or ranking minority member) of a committee or subcommittee for more than three consecutive terms. 

Oversight

Committees conduct oversight to assure that the policy intentions of legislators are carried out by those administering programs, and to assess the adequacy of programs for changing conditions. Some committees, especially in the House, establish separate oversight subcommittees to oversee the implementation of all programs within their jurisdiction. Also, each chamber has assigned to specific committees oversight responsibility for certain issues and programs that cut across committee jurisdictions, and each has a committee responsible for overseeing comprehensively the efficiency and economy of government activities. 

Operations and Procedures

Referral

Each committee has nearly exclusive right to address measures within its jurisdiction. Very few measures are considered on the floor without prior committee attention. An introduced measure generally gets referred immediately to a committee. Some measures are referred to two or more panels, usually because policy subjects are split among committees.(2) Singly referred measures have been more likely than multiply referred ones to pass their chamber and to be enacted into law, in part because of the difficulty in coordinating the work of multiple panels. 

Committees receive varying numbers of measures. In the 103d Congress, referrals ranged from a few to approximately 1,500 for House committees and to approximately 600 for Senate panels. Committees dispose of these measures as they please, selecting only a small percentage for action; those not addressed usually receive no further congressional action. However, the idea, specific provisions, or entire text of some measures may be incorporated through the amendment process into others that the committees and chambers consider and that become law. Determining the fate of measures and, in effect, helping to set a chamber's agenda make committees very powerful. 

Committees often send their measures to subcommittees for initial consideration, but only a full committee can report a measure to the floor for consideration. When a committee or a subcommittee considers a measure, it usually takes the four actions described below. This sequence assumes the committee favors a measure; but, at any time, action on a measure may be discontinued. 

Executive Agency Comment

As a matter of practice and cooperation between the legislative and executive branches, a committee asks relevant executive agencies for written comments on measures it is studying. For example, if the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities were considering a measure to improve public education, it might ask the Department of Education for an opinion. 

Hearings

Committees frequently hold hearings to receive testimony from individuals not on the committee. Hearings may be for legislative, oversight, or investigative purposes. Legislative hearings are those addressing measures before the committee, and they may address many measures on a given subject. Oversight hearings focus on the implementation and administration of programs created by law. Many committees perform oversight when reauthorizing funds for a program, which may occur annually. Investigative hearings often address allegations of wrongdoing by public officials or private citizens, or determine the facts of a major disaster or crisis. 

At hearings, committees gather information and views, identify problems, gauge support for and opposition to measures and proposals, and build a record of action on committee proposals. 

  • Most, but not all, hearings are held in Washington, D.C. 
  • The quorum to hear testimony may be as low as one in the Senate and two in the House, to accommodate Members' busy schedules. 
  • Committees invite experts (witnesses), including Members not on the committee, Federal officials, representatives of interest groups (lobbyists), and private citizens to testify at hearings. 
  • Most witnesses testify willingly upon invitation by the chair or ranking minority member, and some request to testify. However, committees may legally summon (subpoena) individuals as well as written materials. 
  • Before testifying, witnesses are required to submit written statements, which they then summarize orally. Subsequently, committee members question witnesses. 
  • The public usually may attend hearings and other committee meetings, and some open hearings and meetings are broadcast. 
Markup

Following legislative hearings, a committee decides whether to report a measure, in which case it chooses a specific measure and perfects it through amendment. A business meeting for this purpose is called a markup. Both chambers require a minimum quorum of one-third of a committee's members to hold a markup session, and some committees establish a higher one. 

  • The procedures of each chamber for amending measures apply generally to its committees. In practice, the amending process may be formal for controversial measures or relaxed for ones less contentious. 
  • In leading a markup, a chair often chooses the legislative vehicle, called the chair's mark, and presents it for consideration and amendment. 
  • Many individuals, including lobbyists, attempt to influence the content of measures, sometimes suggesting alternative language. A majority of a quorum is needed to adopt an amendment. 
  • Senate committees may permit absent members to vote by proxy, by submitting their votes in writing in advance of the actual vote; proxy voting has been banned in the House. 
  • A majority of committee members voting, with a majority quorum present, is needed to approve the measure and to report it to the chamber. 
Report

A committee rarely reports a measure without changes. Committees sometimes report measures with a series of changes in various sections, or with one large amendment as an entirely new text (called an amendment in the nature of a substitute). A committee may also set aside its amended measure and introduce a new one reflecting the amended text. In the House the new bill is called a clean bill; in the Senate, an original bill. Any committee amendments, and the entire measure, require a chamber's approval to be passed. 

A reported measure usually is accompanied by a written document, called a report, describing the measure's purposes and provisions and telling Members why this version has been reported and why it should be passed. The report reflects the views of a majority of the committee, but may also contain minority, supplemental, or additional views of committee members. Officials of the executive and judicial branches of government use these reports to determine the legislative history of laws and Congress' intent in enacting them. 

Committees and Chamber Action

The measure and its report are placed on a calendar of chamber business and scheduled for floor action by the majority party leadership. In the House, the Committee on Rules works with the leadership to establish the terms and conditions for debating the more controversial or complex measures. Other measures are considered under a few different procedures, where little or no debate and amendment is the norm. In the Senate, non-controversial measures ordinarily are called up by unanimous consent, and disposed of with little or no debate and amendment. More controversial or complex ones may be considered under the provisions of a time agreement or other unanimous consent agreement) which may restrict Senators' freedom of debate and amendment in part by establishing time limits on actions related to the measure. 

The influence of committees over measures extends to their consideration on the floor. The chair and ranking member of the committee or subcommittee reporting the measure (or their designees) normally manage floor debate for their respective parties, especially in the House. Managers guide measures through final disposition by the chamber, which includes planning parliamentary strategy, controlling time for debate, responding to questions from colleagues, warding off unwanted amendments, and building coalitions in favor of their positions. In the House, committee members also have priority in recognition to offer floor amendments. 

Committees' responsibilities extend beyond a measure's initial passage by the chambers to its enactment into law. If the chambers agree to different versions of a measure, the leaders of the reporting committees may facilitate its transmittal between the chambers to obtain agreement on one version. If, however, the chambers decide to reconcile their differences at a conference committee, members of the reporting committees will compose most of the negotiators. In practice, the chambers rely on the chair and ranking member of the reporting committee to choose which of their party colleagues on the committee will serve as conferees. Finally, the chair and ranking member often head their chamber's delegations in conference. 

References

U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. Committees of the United States House of Representatives. CRS Report forthcoming, by Carol Hardy Vincent. Washington, 1995. 

------- Committees of the United States Senate. CRS Report 95-473, by Carol Hardy Vincent. Washington, 1995. 

------- Select and Special Committees in the United States Senate: An Historical Analysis. CRS Report 91-555, by Judy Schneider. Washington, 1991. 

Footnotes

  1. Party committees, task forces, and congressional Member organizations (informal groups) are not addressed here. 

  2. House rules in the 104th Congress eliminated joint referrals, but still allow for split referrals and sequential referrals.
      

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