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The Committee System

The Committee System

With 535 members in Congress and a seemingly infinite number of domestic, international, economic, agricultural, regulatory, criminal, and military issues to deal with at any given moment, the two chambers must divide their work based on specialization. Congress does this through the committee system. Specialized committees (or subcommittees) in both the House and the Senate are where bills originate and most of the work that sets the congressional agenda takes place. Committees are roughly approximate to a bureaucratic department in the executive branch. There are well over two hundred committees, subcommittees, select committees, and joint committees in the Congress. The core committees are called standing committees. There are twenty standing committees in the House and sixteen in the Senate.

Congressional Standing and Permanent Select Committees
House of RepresentativesSenate
AgricultureAgriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
Armed ServicesArmed Services
BudgetBanking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Education and the WorkforceBudget
Energy and CommerceCommerce, Science, and Transportation
EthicsEnergy and Natural Resources
Financial ServicesEnvironment and Public Works
Foreign AffairsEthics (select)
Homeland SecurityFinance
House AdministrationForeign Relations
Intelligence (select)Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
JudiciaryHomeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Natural ResourcesIndian Affairs (select)
Oversight and Government ReformIntelligence (select)
Science, Space, and TechnologyRules and Administration
Small BusinessSmall Business and Entrepreneurship
Transportation and InfrastructureVeterans’ Affairs
Veterans’ Affairs 
Ways and Means 
An image of Sonia Sotomayor standing behind a table with a group of people seated behind.

On July 13, 2009, Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor began the first day of her confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The Senate Judiciary Committee is one of the oldest of the sixteen standing committees in the Senate.

Members of both parties compete for positions on various committees. These positions are typically filled by majority and minority members to roughly approximate the ratio of majority to minority members in the respective chambers, although committees are chaired by members of the majority party. Committees and their chairs have a lot of power in the legislative process, including the ability to stop a bill from going to the floor (the full chamber) for a vote. Indeed, most bills die in committee. But when a committee is eager to develop legislation, it takes a number of methodical steps. It will reach out to relevant agencies for comment on resolutions to the problem at hand, such as by holding hearings with experts to collect information. In the Senate, committee hearings are also held to confirm presidential appointments. After the information has been collected, the committee meets to discuss amendments and legislative language. Finally, the committee will send the bill to the full chamber along with a committee report. The report provides the majority opinion about why the bill should be passed, a minority view to the contrary, and estimates of the proposed law’s cost and impact.

Four types of committees exist in the House and the Senate. The first is the standing, or permanent, committee. This committee is the first call for proposed bills, fewer than 10 percent of which are reported out of committee to the floor. The second type is the joint committee. Joint committee members are appointed from both the House and the Senate, and are charged with exploring a few key issues, such as the economy and taxation. However, joint committees have no bill-referral authority whatsoever—they are informational only. A conference committee is used to reconcile different bills passed in both the House and the Senate. The conference committees are appointed on an ad hoc basis as necessary when a bill passes the House and Senate in different forms. Finally, ad hoc, special, or select committees are temporary committees set up to address specific topics. These types of committees often conduct special investigations, such as on aging or ethics.

Committee hearings can become politically driven public spectacles. Consider the House Select Committee on Benghazi, the committee assembled by Republicans to further investigate the 2011 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. This prolonged investigation became particularly partisan as Republicans trained their guns on then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who was running for the presidency at the time. In two multi-hour hearings in which Secretary Clinton was the only witness, Republicans tended to grandstand in the hopes of gaining political advantage or tripping her up, while Democrats tended to use their time to ridicule Republicans. In the end, the long hearings uncovered little more than the elevated state of partisanship in the House, which had scarcely been a secret before.

An image of several people seated behind a long wooden bench.

On October 22, 2015, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified for the second time before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, answering questions from members for more than eight hours.

Members of Congress bring to their roles a variety of specific experiences, interests, and levels of expertise, and try to match these to committee positions. For example, House members from states with large agricultural interests will typically seek positions on the Agriculture Committee. Senate members with a background in banking or finance may seek positions on the Senate Finance Committee. Members can request these positions from their chambers’ respective leadership, and the leadership also selects the committee chairs.

Image A is of Chuck Grassley. Image B is of Merrick Garland and Susan Collins.

In 2016, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa (a), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, refused to hold hearings on the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, despite the urging of his committee colleagues. In the meantime, Garland met with numerous senators, such as Republican Susan Collins of Maine (b).

Committee chairs are very powerful. They control the committee’s budget and choose when the committee will meet, when it will hold hearings, and even whether it will consider a bill. A chair can convene a meeting when members of the minority are absent or adjourn a meeting when things are not progressing as the majority leadership wishes. Chairs can hear a bill even when the rest of the committee objects. They do not remain in these powerful positions indefinitely, however. In the House, rules prevent committee chairs from serving more than six consecutive years and from serving as the chair of a subcommittee at the same time. A senator may serve only six years as chair of a committee but may, in some instances, also serve as a chair or ranking member of another committee.

Because the Senate is much smaller than the House, senators hold more committee assignments than House members. There are sixteen standing committees in the Senate, and each position must be filled. In contrast, in the House, with 435 members and only twenty standing committees, committee members have time to pursue a more in-depth review of a policy. House members historically defer to the decisions of committees, while senators tend to view committee decisions as recommendations, often seeking additional discussion that could lead to changes.

Take a look at the scores of committees in the House and Senate. The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill once quipped that if you didn’t know a new House member’s name, you could just call him Mr. Chairperson.

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