The Committee System in the U.S. Congress
Specialist in American National Government
Congressional Research Service
The Library of Congress
May 10, 1995
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
System in the U.S. Congress
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."
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.
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.
Types of Committees
There are three
types of committees--standing; select; and joint(1)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- The public
usually may attend hearings and other committee meetings, and
some open hearings and meetings are broadcast.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
of Congress. Congressional Research Service. Committees of the
United States House of Representatives. CRS Report forthcoming,
by Carol Hardy Vincent. Washington, 1995.
of the United States Senate. CRS Report 95-473, by Carol Hardy
Vincent. Washington, 1995.
and Special Committees in the United States Senate: An Historical
Analysis. CRS Report 91-555, by Judy Schneider. Washington,
- Party committees,
task forces, and congressional Member organizations (informal
groups) are not addressed here.
House rules in the 104th Congress eliminated joint referrals, but
still allow for split referrals and sequential referrals.