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United States Congressional committee

A Congressional committee is a legislative sub-organization in the United States Congress that handles a specific duty (rather than the general duties of Congress). Committee membership enables members to develop specialized knowledge of the matters under their jurisdiction. As "little legislatures," committees monitor on-going governmental operations, identify issues suitable for legislative review, gather and evaluate information; and recommend courses of action to their parent body. Woodrow Wilson once said ". . .it is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work."[1]

Congress divides its legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks among approximately 200 committees and subcommittees. Within assigned areas, these functional subunits gather information; compare and evaluate legislative alternatives; identify policy problems and propose solutions; select, determine, and report measures for full chamber consideration; monitor executive branch performance (oversight); and investigate allegations of wrongdoing.[2]

Over the last century and a half, the growing autonomy of committees has fragmented the power of each congressional chamber as a unit. This centrifugal dispersion of power has, without doubt, weakened the Legislative Branch relative to the other branches of the Federal government, i.e. the Executive Branch, the courts, and the bureaucracy. In his oft cited, History of the House of Representatives, written in 1961, the American scholar, George B. Galloway (1898-1967) said of the Congress: "In practice, Congress functions not as a unified institution, but as a collection of semi-autonomous committees that seldom act in unison." Galloway went on to cite committee autonomy as a factor interfering with the adoption of a coherent legislative program.[3] De facto autonomy remains a characteristic feature of the committee system in Congress today.


History of Congressional committees

The modern committee structure stems from the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, the first and most ambitious restructuring of the standing committee system since the committee system was first developed. The 1946 act reduced the number of House committees from 48 to 19 and the number of Senate committees from 33 to 15. Jurisdictions of all committee were codified by rule in their respective chambers, which helped consolidate or eliminate many existing committees and minimize jurisdictional conflicts.

The Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, a temporary committee established in 1993 to conduct a policy and historical analysis of the committee system, determined that while the 1946 Act was instrumental in streamlining the committee system, it did fail to limit the number of subcommittees allowed on any one committee. Today, Rules in the U.S. House of Representatives generally limit each full committee to five subcommittees, with the exception of Appropriations (12 subcommittees), Armed Services (7), Foreign Affairs (7), and Transportation and Infrastructure (6).[4] There are no limits on the number of subcommittees in the U.S. Senate.

Congress has convened several other temporary review committees to analyze and make recommendations on ways to reform and improve the committee system. For example, the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 led to further reforms to open Congress to further public visibility, strengthen its decision-making capacities, and augment minority rights. The 1970 Act provided for recorded teller votes in the House's Committee of the Whole; allowed minority party committee members to call their own witnesses during a day of hearings; established the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs; and enhanced the research capabilities of two legislative support agencies: the Congressional Research Service and the General Accounting Office.

Reform of Congressional committee system

As might be expected, scholars and citizen reformers are generally more critical, and propose more fundamental forms of reform, than spring from within the congressional power structure, where political self-interest associated with incumbency tends to quench the flame of reform. Ways to democratize and to streamline the committee system include making it easier to bypass committee chairman, and indeed to circumvent the semi-autonomous standing committee system altogether when a committee obstructs the legislative process by withholding a bill from floor debate and majority decision. One approach to reform is to facilitate the process whereby committee decisions are brought to the floor of the whole House or Senate. Another approach is increasing the power and purview of joint committees, where the interest of each chamber in controlling its own bills would cause members of Congress to look askance at joint committee autonomy. The idea is that the two parent bodies acting as units would be inclined to hold joint committees accountable and to afford critical scrutiny to committee decisions. A combination of such approaches, along with other reforms, are set forth with detailed analysis in, Robert Struble, Jr., Treatise on Twelve Lights, chapter seven, in the subsection, Procedural Reforms Within Congress.

History of Senate committees

The first Senate committee was established April 7, 1789, to draw up Senate rules of procedure. In those early days, the Senate operated with temporary select committees, which were responsive to the entire Senate, with the full Senate selecting their jurisdiction and membership. This system provided a great deal of flexibility, as if one committee proved unresponsive, another could be established in its place. The Senate could also forego committee referral for actions on legislation or presidential nominations. These early committees generally consisted of three members for routine business and five members for more important issues. The largest committee established during the 1st Congress had eleven members, and was created to determine salaries of the president and vice president. Also in the first session, the entire membership of the Senate was divided into two large committees, with half the senators on the committee to prepare legislation establishing the federal judiciary and the other half on the committee to define the punishment of crimes against the United States.

Over time, this system proved ineffective, so in 1816 the Senate adopted a formal system of 11 standing committees with five members each. Two of those committees, the Foreign Relations Committee and the Judiciary Committee exist largely unchanged today, while the duties of the others have evolved into successor committees. With the advent of this new system, committees are able to handle long-term studies and investigations, in addition to regular legislative duties. According to the Senate Historical Office, "the significance of the change from temporary to permanent committees was perhaps little realized at the time." With the growing responsibilities of the Senate, the committees gradually grew to be the key policy-making bodies of the Senate, instead of merely technical aids to the chamber.

By 1906, the Senate maintained 66 standing and select committees—eight more committees than members of the majority party. The large number of committees and the manner of assigning their chairmanships suggests that many of them existed solely to provide office space in those days before the Senate acquired its first permanent office building, the Russell Senate Office Building. There were so many committees that freshman Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin was assigned chairmanship of the Committee to Investigate the Condition of the Potomac River Front at Washington. According to LaFollette, he "had immediate visions of cleaning up the whole Potomac River front. Then [he] found that in all its history, the committee had never had a bill referred to it for consideration, and had never held a meeting." In 1920, the Congressional Directory listed nearly 80 committees, including the Committee on the Disposition of Useless Papers in the Executive Departments. By May 27, 1920, the Russell Senate Office Building had opened, and with all Senate members assigned private office space, the Senate quietly abolished 42 committees.[5]

Today the Senate operates with 20 standing and select committees. These select committees, however, are permanent in nature and are treated as standing committees under Senate rules.

History of House committees

The first House committee was appointed on April 2, 1789 to "prepare and report such standing rules and orders of proceeding" as well as the duties of a Sergeant-at-Arms to enforce those rules.[6] Other committees were created as needed, on a temporary basis, to review specific issues for the full House. The House relied primarily on the Committee of the Whole to handle the bulk of legislative issues. In response to the House's need for more detailed advice on certain issues, more specific committees with broader authority were established. One of the first was a three-member committee on April 29, 1789 "to prepare and report an estimate of supplies . . . and of nett[7] produce of the impost." The Committee on Ways and Means followed on July 24, 1789 during a debate on the creation of the Treasury Department over concerns of giving the new department too much authority over revenue proposals, and that the House would be better equipped to handle those matters by establishing a committee to handle the matter. This first Committee on Ways and Means had 11 members and existed for just two months. It later became a standing committee in 1801, a position it still holds today.[8]

Types of committees

There are three main types of committees—standing, select or special, and joint.[2]

Standing committees are permanent panels identified as such in chamber rules (House Rule X, Senate Rule XXV).

Because they have legislative jurisdiction, standing committees consider bills and issues and recommend measures for consideration by their respective chambers. They also have oversight responsibility to monitor agencies, programs, and activities within their jurisdictions, and in some cases in areas that cut across committee jurisdictions.

Most standing committees recommend funding levels—authorizations—for government operations and for new and existing programs. A few have other functions. For example, the Appropriations Committees recommend legislation to provide budget authority for federal agencies and programs. The Budget Committees establish aggregate levels for total spending and revenue that serve as guidelines for the work of the authorizing and appropriating panels.

Select or special committees are established generally by a separate resolution of the chamber, sometimes to conduct investigations and studies, and, on other occasions, also to consider measures. Often, select committees examine emerging issues that don’t fit clearly within existing standing committee jurisdictions, or which cut across jurisdictional boundaries. A select committee may be permanent or temporary (all current select committees in the House and Senate are considered permanent committees). Instead of select, the Senate sometimes uses the term special committee (as in the Special Committee on Aging).

Joint committees are permanent panels that include members from both chambers, which generally conduct studies or perform housekeeping tasks rather than consider measures. For instance, the Joint Committee on Printing oversees the functions of the Government Printing Office and general printing procedures of the federal government. The chairmanship of joint committees usually alternates between the House and Senate. A conference committee is a temporary joint committee formed to resolve differences between competing House and Senate versions of a measure. Conference committees draft compromises between the positions of the two chambers, which are then submitted to the full House and Senate for approval.

On the joint committee system that has prevailed for many decades in New England -- in the legislatures of Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts -- and on reform along somewhat similar lines for the standing committee system of the U.S. Congress, see Struble's work as cited below.[9]

Other committees are also used in the modern Congress.

  • Subcommittees are formed by most committees to share specific tasks within the jurisdiction of the full committee. Subcommittees are responsible to, and work within the guidelines established by, their parent committees. In particular, standing committees usually create subcommittees with legislative jurisdiction to consider and report bills. They may assign their subcommittees such specific tasks as the initial consideration of measures and oversight of laws and programs in the subcommittees’ areas.

Current committees

Main articles: List of United States House committees and List of United States Senate committees

In the House of Representatives, there are 21 permanent committees, and 20 in the United States Senate. Four joint committees operate with members from both houses on matters of mutual jurisdiction and oversight.

Committees in the House of Representatives generally have more members, due its larger size, as compared to the smaller 100-member Senate. Senate rules fix the maximum size for many of its committees, while the House determines the size and makeup of each committee every new Congress.

The roster of each committee is officially approved by a full vote of its house. However those decisions (including who will serve as chair of each committee) are made de facto by the party leadership. Considerations in making the assignments include each member's areas of expertise, the interests of their constituents, and seniority. Political favors also often come into play in committee assignments.

House of Representatives Senate Joint

(click here for complete list with subcommittees)

(click here for complete list with subcommittees)

See also


  1. ^ Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government, 1885, quoted in the JCOC Final Report
  2. ^ a b Committee Types and Roles, Congressional Research Service, April 1, 2003
  3. ^ George B. Galloway, History of the House of Representatives (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1961), pp. 99-100.
  4. ^ Committee System Rules Changes in the House, 110th Congress, Congressional Research Service, January 25, 2007
  5. ^ Senate Eliminates 42 Committees, Senate Historical Minute Essays, U.S. Senate Historical Office
  6. ^ U.S. House Journal. 1st Cong., 1st sess., April 2, 1789.
  7. ^ Sic (Thus in original. Probably meant "net.")
  8. ^ H. Doc. 100-244, The Committee on Ways and Means a Bicentennial History 1789-1989, page 3
  9. ^ Robert Struble, Jr., Treatise on Twelve Lights, chapter seven, Political Interest


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