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									     The Committee System

“Congress in Committee is Congress at work”
                        - Woodrow Wilson (1888)
 The emergence of the committee system

• Congressional committees aren’t mentioned in the
  constitution … or any early Federal laws
• By 1820’s, federal government was beginning to look
  the way it looks today
   – Mass parties were coalescing, presidential elections
     became national, vote extended to all white males (and
     some free blacks)
   – In both houses a system of standing committees was
• This system has dominated the business of both
  chambers ever since
      History of Standing Committees
• 1571, House of Commons establishes a single
  committee, “charged not with a single bill, … but
  with a general subject.”
• By 1600’s, 5 standing committees in House of
  Commons: privileges and elections, religion,
  grievances, courts of justice, trade
• American standing committees developed in colonial
• By 1700’s, colonial committees appointed for whole
  sessions, had fixed memberships and well-defined
       Committee history in Congress

• Originally, neither chamber had any standing
• Only after deliberation by whole was a committee
  established to work on the bill
   – Committee had no veto power, modest proposal
     power, was dismissed after work on bill completed
• Why no standing committees?
   – Not a radical concept (were used in many colonies)
   – Early forms didn’t entail tremendous amounts of
     agenda or decision-making power
           Why no standing committees?

• A deliberate choice
   – Jeffersonian Republicans disliked idea of a small group
     being disproportionately influential at prelegislative stage
   – Felt principles of bill should emerge from deliberation
   – Federalists had no problem with standing committees, but
     felt they were redundant
       • Agenda-setting power of executive branch good enough
• In reality, bills started being referred to legislators that
  had established expertise on the matter
  Change in Congressional organization

In the first 9 Congresses (18 years), the House had 8 standing
committees. The Senate had 1.

The House created 2 in the 10th Congress (1807-09)
The Senate created 1.

The House created 10 standing committees between 1812 and
1817. The Senate created 12.
  The creation of standing committees in
           the House: 1811-1825
• In elections of 1810, new legislators from South and
  West came to Congress in pursuit of a declaration of
   – Had suffered at hands of British
   – Brits had cut off European markets for agricultural
     crops that were mainstay of frontier economy
   – Believed that Brits had provided arms to Native
     Americans for purpose of attacking settlers
   – One of these new legislators was Henry Clay
                The War of 1812

• Clay was elected Speaker in 1811, and began pushing
  President Madison for a war declaration
• Stood as head of homogenous group of Southern and
  Western Republicans, and passed war declaration in
  1812 against British
• During war, 3 new standing committees established:
  Judiciary, Revolutionary War Claims, Public
               Post-war Congress

• After treaty of Ghent signed, signs of Republican
  coalition split
   – Disagreements over taxes, Western v Northern
• Clay forced to search for new methods to gain control
  of House, since war no longer an issue
• Expanded standing committee system solidified
  Clay’s support
   – “Bolstered flagging troops by giving them a permanent
     stake in the business of the House.”
 Development of standing committees in
        the Senate: 1811-1825
• In 1816, Virginia Senator submitted a resolution to
  amend Senate rules by creating 11 standing
• It passed and two weeks later a new Committee on
  the District of Columbia also added
• Thus in 2 weeks, a standing committee system was
                 Why so quickly?

• In first 30 years, Senate a reactive chamber
   – Responded to House and Executive initiatives
   – Surrendered much of its control over its agenda to
     external agents
• By 1816, Congress had become estranged from
  Madison, and turned to standing committees to fill
   – Senate borrowed from House notion of standing
     committees, then extended this system to totally
     exclude earlier forms of organization
   External Events and Internal Structure

• Timing suggests War of 1812 a catalyst; creation of committees
  usually linked to an important historical occurance
   – Louisiana Purchase (1803), Committee on Public Lands
   – Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam
       • Reconstruction-era reorganization of committees
       • Budget Act of 1921,
       • Legislative Reorganization Acts of 1946 and 1970
• Pressures simultaneously disorganize and create a need for
  more coherent organization of congressional decision making
          Committees as workshops

• When a bill is introduced in the House or Senate, it is
  usually referred to the committee with jurisdiction
  over its particular policy area
• Committees allow for a division of legislative labor,
  enabling the 100 Senators and 435 House members to
  consider approximately 5,000 bills and 50,000
  nominations a year
• Means by which Congress “sifts through an
  otherwise impossible jumble of bills, proposals and
      2 Theories of committee purpose
• Distributional: Committees give lawmakers influence
  over policies critical to their reelection
   – Those attracted to a particular committee are those
     whose constituents benefit from such policies
   – Filled with preference outliers, legislators whose
     preferences at odds w. membership of the whole
Informational: Committees provide lawmakers with
   specialized expertise
   – Formulate policies that resolve national problems
                Types of Committees
            (Standing, select, joint, conference)

• Standing: Permanent committees (last from year to year);
  agriculture, appropriations, armed services, budget
   – Process bulk of legislation
• Select (or Special):
   – Temporary, usually lasting only 2 years
   – Usually don’t have legislative authority, but study bills and
      make recommendations
   – Coordinate legislation that overlaps jurisdiction of several
      standing committees (Select committee on homeland
                                      Table 6.1. Types of Committees

                                                               May Report Legislation to the Floor?

                                                         Yes                                             No

                                                                                some select committees
                    Yes         standing committees
                                                                                joint committees

Permanent Status?

                                conference committees
                    No          most select committees
                                ad hoc committees

                    Source: House rules,
• Joint: Include members of both chambers (House and
   – Economic, Library, Printing, Taxation
• Conference: Reconcile differences between similar
  measures passed by both chambers (legislation must
  be identical before signed by president)
   – Composed of members of both houses
4 types of conference bargaining:
• Traditional: participants meet, haggle
• Offer-counteroffer: sides suggest compromises, recess
   to discuss
• Subconference: groups address special topics
• Pro forma: informal preconference negotiations
                Standing Committees of the House, 111th Congress

                                        House of Representatives

Name (Number of Subcommittees)                                     Demsc   Repsc

Agriculture (6)                                                      28       18

Appropriations (12)                                                  37       23

Armed Services (7)                                                   37       25

Budget (0)                                                           24       15

Education and Labor (5)                                              30       19

Energy and Commerce (6)                                              36       23

Financial Services (5)                                               42       29

Foreign Relations (7)                                                28       19

Homeland Security (6)                                                21       13

House Administration (2)                                              6       3

Judiciary (5)                                                        24       16

Natural Resources (4)                                                29       20

Oversight and Government Reform (5)                                  25       16

Rules (2)                                                             9       4

Science and Technology (5)                                           27       17

Select Committee on Intelligencea (4)                                13       9

Small Business (5)                                                   17       12

Standards of Official Conduct b (0)                                   5       5

Transportation and Infrastructure (6)                                45       30

Veterans’ Affairs (4)                                                18       11

Ways and Means (6)                                                   26       15
    How and Why Do Members Value
       Committee Assignments
• District Interests
   – Agriculture, Transportation, Armed Services
• Advancement in Party /Chamber
   – Rules, Appropriations
• Personal Interest
• Visibility
   – Homeland Security, Judiciary
         How assignments are made
  Formal Criteria
• In Senate, “Johnson rule” is followed:
   – All party members assigned to one major committee
     before someone gets a second major assignment
   – These are: Appropriations, Armed Services,
     Commerce, Finance, Foreign Relations
• In House, committees are ranked exclusive,
  nonexclusive, exempt
   – Exclusive can’t serve on any other standing committee
   – Can serve on two nonexclusive
        Informal assignment criteria

• Seniority: Only Senate Republicans apply seniority
  rigidly when two members compete for a vacancy or
  chairmanship (most senior  longest continuing
  committee service)
• Fundraising ability
• Demographics
• Issue Advocates
     Are Committees “Representative?”

•   Should they be?
•   “High Demanders”
•   Expertise
•   Partisan effects, seniority, “issue ownership”
•   Bargaining with the other chamber/President
               FIGURE 6.2. Median Conservative Score for Standing Committees, 2005-2006
                      Source: Common space scores from

                         HOUSE COMMITTEES
                       House Administration
                            Armed Services
               Education and the Workplace
                    Energy and Commerce
                          Financial Services
          Government Reform and Oversight
                         Homeland Security
                     International Relations
                             Small Business
               Standards of Official Conduct
           Transportation and Infrastructure
                           Veterans' Affairs
                           Ways and Means
                        SENATE COMMITTEES
         Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
                              Armed Services
        Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
   Commerce, Science, and Transportation
              Energy and Natural Resources
              Environment and Public Works
                            Foreign Relations
      Health, Education, Labor, and Pension
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
                                 Indian Affairs
                    Rules and Administration
       Small Business and Entrepreneurship
                             Veterans' Affairs

                                                   0   0.05   0.1   0.15   0.2   0.25     0.3   0.35   0.4
             Committee Leadership

• Leaders are chairmen and ranking minority party
   – Chairmen have similar role over committee as Speaker
     has over House (a mini-legislature)
   – Can set agendas, allocate funds, arrange hearings
   – Can kill a bill by refusing to schedule it for a hearing or
     convening meetings when opponents are absent
   – 1970s era: Subcommittee Bill of Rights
   – 1990s: GOP centralization of committees
      • Role of Appropriations Committee
         What happens in committees

• 3 standard steps: public hearings, markups, reports
1. Hearings: committee listens to a wide variety of
   •   Explore need for legislation
   •   Provide a forum for citizen grievances
   •   Raise visibility of issue
   •   Educate lawmakers and public
2. Markups: members decide on bill’s actual language,
   conceptualize the bill
   – Outside pressures often intense during markup
   – Government in the Sunshine Act (1977) rules all markup
     sessions conducted in public (except Nat’l Security,
     some commerce, a few others)
   – After markup, if in a subcommittee, recommendations
     sent to full committee, which votes to ratify, conduct
     its own markup, return to subcommittee, or do
3. Reports: If committee votes to send bill to floor, the
   staff prepares a full report summarizing results of
   committee research

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