Jul 19, 2019

Congress Working: Congressional Committees, The Legislative Engines of Congress

Congressional committees are a vital component of a functional legislative process.  They are responsible for debating and amending bills before they are presented to the larger legislative bodies of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Organized by policy issue, the main standing committees play an important function as bills and other legislative matters must be referred to them before the full House and Senate vote on them.

There are several different types of committees which serve various, vital roles. Standing committees make up the majority of congressional committees: there are 20 are in the House of Representatives and 17 in the Senate. Standing committees are permanent committees that meet regularly to consider important, timely issues, budget matters, nominations, and more. Some examples of standing committees include the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Congress also carries out business through special, select, joint, and conference committees. Special and select committees are appointed for a specified, limited time to serve a specific function that is currently not under the authority of a standing committee. Typically, special and select committees perform investigations or studies of specific issues. Currently, there are six special and select committees; examples include the Senate Special Aging Committee and the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Further, joint committees are committees in which membership is open to members from both houses of Congress. There are currently four joint committees; one example is the Joint Economic Committee. Finally, conference committees are established for a given period to resolve different versions of a bill from both houses in order to create one compromise bill. Many committees also establish subcommittees, which are smaller groups within the larger committee to address specific policy areas. Subcommittees allow for a more focused examination of specific policies that fall within the larger committee’s jurisdiction.

There are other divisions of labor that committees play.  The majority of the committees are known as authorizing committees in that they consider legislation and oversight related to the agencies and programs within their jurisdiction.  Additionally, there are two designated committees that focus on different aspects of the federal budget.  The appropriations committees in the House and Senate consider the annual, discretionary federal budget, and the tax committees (Senate Finance and House Ways and Means) consider tax, entitlement, and trade issues.  It is also important to note that the U.S. Constitution directs that the House initiates action on all revenue legislation, so these two House committees have important roles on federal budget and tax issues.  The Senate has the lead on Executive and Judicial nominations as well as international treaties, so those committees are key for these matters.

Being on committees is important, but it is not possible to serve on all of them.  When members of Congress are first elected, and at the beginning of each new Congress, party leadership in both houses assign them to serve on certain committees. Members’ background experiences, such as previous roles in specific policy areas, are considered during committee placement. Additionally, members can provide input for which committees they are most interested in joining.  Members of the House of Representatives serve on fewer committees than the Senate.

The needs of the committees are also important to consider during committee placement; for example, leadership considers where members are from to diversify geographic connections. Since members are frequently assigned to committees in which they have specific interests or a professional background, bills are examined by members who ideally have a working knowledge of the policy topic in the early stages of legislation. This makes committees useful in ensuring that bills are thoughtfully reviewed before debates on the House and Senate floors.

Committees see legislation at its very first stages, with focus on debating and amending to refine the bill. When a bill is referred to a committee and the committee chooses to discuss it, a hearing is often scheduled on the topic to consider different perspectives.  The committee leadership decides the time to amend and pass out a bill, which is known as the mark-up process. Not all bills that are referred to committees are examined, however; many bills “die” in this stage of the process if they are not prioritized by the committee chair.  It is also the case that policy ideas are pulled from different bills and incorporated into a separate bill that is taken up, so while individual bills do not pass, their ideas may ride along in a larger bill.

Committees regularly hold hearings in which experts who have credentials in the given policy area are invited to speak as witnesses regarding a specific policy issue or bill. Members of the committee can ask witnesses questions during these proceedings to gain a better understanding and more information about different aspects related to a certain policy or bill.  Optimally, committees can then develop an evidence-based policy to advance.

Committees also engage in bill “mark-ups,” a process in which legislation is brought to a committee to be amended and voted on before being considered by the entire chamber (or not, should the committee fail to approve the bill).  During bill mark-ups, members of the committee can formally offer amendments to the bill.  Amendments are either adopted or not, and then the committee votes on the entire, revised legislation. In many cases as referenced earlier, a chair of a committee will combine bills with similar topics or create a “chairman’s mark” which serves as the blending of different bills.

With the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, there is a real opportunity to improve the way that committees work. Click here to read more on how the Modernization Committee could strengthen congressional committees.

Without committees, a legislative process that is already contentious by design becomes practically dysfunctional.  The result is a reduced capacity to produce results and solve problems.  Empowered and well-functioning committees build a solid foundation for fact-based legislation, act as bipartisan bridge-builders through the amending process, and give members more of a stake in ensuring the ultimate success of a bill on the floor.  Improvements to the committee system in Congress are essential to securing a Congress that works.

Is Congress Working for You?