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Committees Considered: Understanding A Crucial Stage In The Lawmaking Process

Despite Congress's enormous influence over our lives, Americans know relatively little about how it operates. Most people have a general idea that Congress can pass laws, but know little of the specifics. In particular, committees remain a mystery to many citizens. Occupying a crucial stage between a bill's introduction and its final vote, congressional committees can investigate key issues, reconcile disagreements between the House and the Senate, and approve, reject, or modify legislation. It is thus essential to understand how they work.

Standing Committees

Most discussion of congressional committees centers on standing committees, or the permanent organizations that both houses of Congress use to deliberate on legislation. After a member of Congress introduces a bill, the chamber sends it to the committee most directly related to its provisions. The committee then discusses the bill, studies and modifies it, and votes on whether to approve or reject it. The Senate has 16 standing committees, while the House of Representatives has 19. The most important committees include:

  • The Senate Committee On Armed Services- Currently chaired by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), this committee votes on issues related to national defense, military research, space exploration, and strategic resources. The House of Representatives has a similar body, the House Committee on Armed Services.
  • The Senate Committee On Health, Education, Labor, And Pensions- This committee handles legislation on a range of different issues related to public health, education, and economic wellbeing. These include the minimum wage, OSHA regulations, pensions, student loans, and accommodations for Americans who have disabilities. Its chair is Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN).
  • The House Committee On Energy And Commerce- One of the oldest committees in Congress, this body was first created in 1795. It handles legislation on everything from food and drug regulations to energy supply to interstate and international commerce to environmental protection. Its current chair is Representative Greg Walden (R-OR).
  • The House Committee On Ways And Means- This committee controls all taxes, tariffs, and other Federal means of raising revenue, as well as major government spending programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Because this committee has so much power, Representatives who serve there are not allowed to serve on other committees unless their party’s leaders give them a special dispensation. Its chair is Kevin Brady (R-TX).

In addition to shaping and voting on legislation, Senate committees also have the power to vote on Presidential nominees for related cabinet positions. Before the Senate voted to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, for example, the Senate Committee On Health, Education, Labor, And Pensions had to approve her.

Select Committees

In addition to standing committees, both houses of Congress can also organize select, or special, committees. As their name implies, these committees are devoted to completing specific tasks, after which point they usually cease to exist. Typically, select committees serve an investigative function, researching topics on behalf of standing committees or the chamber as a whole. Select committees have included:

  • The Senate Select Committee On Intelligence- This committee was created in 1976 to oversee the CIA, the National Security Agency, and other key elements of the American intelligence community. Despite being a select committee, it continues to operate after 40 years.
  • The House Select Committee On Energy Independence And Global Warming- Established in 2007, this committee investigated strategies to encourage renewable energy use and reduce American contributions to climate change. It was disbanded in 2011 due to changes in House leadership.
  • The House Select Committee On Benghazi- Created in 2014, this committee researched the events leading up to the 2012 attack on American diplomatic and intelligence facilities in Benghazi, Libya. It was this body that discovered that Hillary Clinton had used a private email server while serving as Secretary of State, a revelation that may have led to her loss in the 2016 US presidential election.

Select committees can become standing committees over time. The House Committee On Ways And Means, for example, began as a select committee.

Conference Committees

For a bill to become law in the United States, both the Senate and the House of Representatives must pass it. The simplest way to do this is for one chamber to approve the bill that the other chamber already passed. Because both chambers tend to develop their own versions of bills, however, they must usually reconcile the different provisions of their legislation before they can enact them. To do this, they create conference committees, or committees made up of both Senators and US Representatives. Conference committees work to reconcile differences between the two houses' bills. Often, the majority of the differences are simply variations in language; the committee need only make sure the final bill has consistent wording. When the two bills have significantly different provisions, however, the committee must find a compromise that both chambers of Congress will accept.

A Note On Subcommittees

Because full committees have to consider a wide range of issues, they often establish subcommittees to divide up the work. Subcommittees are specialized bodies that focus on a specific issue under the broader committee’s jurisdiction.

The House and Senate have relatively few rules on subcommittees, and generally allow committee chairs to decide for themselves how to organize smaller bodies. This often means that subcommittee organization varies based on which party controls each chamber. When the Democratic Party is in control of the House of Representatives, for example, it requires all subcommittees to contain no more than 60 percent of the members of the full committee; the Republican Party has no such rule.


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