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Congress of the United States

Congressional Committees

The committee system plays an enormous role in how legislation moves through Congress.

The job of Congress is to create the laws of the United States. Sometimes this legislation is brand new; other times it is an adjustment to existing legislation. The passage of a bill is largely dependent on the committee that recommends it to the full House of Representatives or Senate. Both bodies of Congress do most of their work within this committee structure.

There are several types of committees. A standing committee is a permanent congressional committee that focuses on a specific area of legislation, such as the environment or agriculture. A select committee, or special committee, is a temporary congressional committee formed to address a specific, timely issue. These include the Senate Select Committee on Aging. A joint committee is a committee composed of members of both chambers of Congress that has a narrow focus and will not usually report bills for debate. The Joint Economic Committee, which provides congressional input on national economic policy, is one such committee.

Each committee has one or more subcommittees. A subcommittee is a small, focused group formed within a larger congressional committee that considers and researches certain issues and then reports back to the larger committee.

A conference committee is distinct from the others. It is a temporary committee made up of members from both chambers of Congress that is tasked with reconciling differences in House and Senate versions of the same bill. Chosen by the party leaders in the two chambers, members often include the chairs of the committees involved in the particular bill.

Some committees are more powerful than others. Committees that deal with taxation, spending, business regulation, oversight, defense, and foreign policy are particularly powerful. In the House, these include the Appropriations, Budget, Energy and Commerce, Oversight and Government Reform, Foreign Affairs, and Armed Services Committees. In the Senate, these include the Appropriations; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; Finance; Foreign Relations; and Armed Services Committees.

One member serves as chair of the committee. The more power a committee has, the more powerful its chairperson. As head of a committee, the chair plays a large role in deciding which bills are reported to the full House or Senate and which bills are tabled, or no longer considered. The chair's position is so powerful that, in 1995, the majority House Republicans instituted a new policy that prohibits a member of the House from serving as the chair of the same committee for more than three terms, or six years total.

Types of Committees in Congress

Standing Committee Select/Special Committee Joint Committee
Definition Permanent committee that focuses on a specific area of legislation Temporary committee formed to address a specific, timely issue Committee with members from both houses that has a narrow focus and usually will not report bills for debate
Examples Foreign Affairs; Budget; Education; Science, Space, and Technology Aging, Indian Affairs Joint Committee on Taxation, Joint Committee on the Library

Committee assignments are made at the beginning of each new session of Congress. In the House, party leaders first determine the total membership of each committee and how many of those members should be from each party. This ratio roughly follows the ratio of the full Congress. A steering committee then makes recommendations on who should serve on which committee. Members with seniority and those who are vulnerable electorally are given preference. On average, House members serve on one or two committees and three or four subcommittees.

In the Senate, seniority is also taken into account when party leaders make committee assignments, as is membership in the majority versus minority party. For new senators, committee assignments are influenced by previous service in the government as a member of the House or as governor. In addition, the Senate follows specific rules on how many subcommittees a senator can serve on or chair. Dividing the committees into three classes, or groups, designated A, B, and C, the Senate says that a given senator can serve on no more than two Class A committees and one Class B, though the number of Class C memberships is not limited. When it comes to powerful standing committees—Appropriations, Armed Services, Finance, and Foreign Relations—Republicans limit themselves to serving on only one. Democrats follow the same rule but do not include the Foreign Relations committee. Finally, the Senate prohibits senators from the same state who belong to the same party from serving on the same committee. On average, senators serve on three or four committees and nine or ten subcommittees.