Congressional Committees

'The engine room'


'Congress in session, is Congress on show; Congress in Committee is Congress at work' Woodrow Wilson

Committees in the US Congress are far more powerful than committees in the UK Parliament. They combine the functions of scrutiny (oversight) and legislating.

The functions of Committees in Congress can be broadly divided in to three areas. Two of these functions are carried out by both Senate and House committees, but the third function is reserved for the Senate only. US Congressional committees are significantly more powerful than their UK counterparts down to the power of subpoena. This power means that witnesses and evidence can be requested to come before the committee or face sanctions.

After a bill has had its first reading in Congress the bills are then assigned to a committee. It is important to note that the committee stage comes before the Second Reading, unlike in the US where it comes afterwards. In the House of Representatives, the Speaker will decide which committees will receive the bill. For example, if it a bill on the Armed Forces then the House Armed Services Committee will be tasked with it. It is similar in the Senate but with the Majority Leader deciding where the bill should go. Once they have been placed into committee, it is up to the committee to decide on which bills they are going to ‘hear’, Many bills will never get heard by the committees, this means that they are said to be ‘pigeon holed’.

If a bill does get heard, then it is at this stage that Pork Barrelling happens the most. Committee members will add in amendments to the bills to benefit their constituents. Sometimes the amendments will have nothing to do with the original bill itself. Bills may die even if they are heard by the committee. If they can’t get reported out of committee, then they die. This happened with Bill Clinton’s Healthcare Reforms.

Committees can hold investigations into any topic that comes under its remit and can be on a wide range of issues. They are often topical and seek to find out whether something has a benefit to the United States, or they seek to find out what happened if there is some form of crisis in the Federal Government. As with the legislative process function, committees can subpoena evidence and witnesses to aid them in their investigation. Examples of some committees conducting investigations include the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which investigated the effect of NATO Enlargement. Committees have in the past asked foreign politicians to come and testify before the committee, notable former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway was called to give evidence over Iraq.

In the Senate only, the committees may conduct confirmation hearings into executive appointments. These will happen in advance of the appointee being subject to Senate wide vote. The most well known confirmation hearings occur when vacancies on the US Supreme Court arise, as anyone selected must appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Committee will search through evidence to prove that the candidate is worthy enough to serve on the Supreme Court. However, there are plenty of other confirmation hearings for Cabinet positions, and the Director of Office for Management and Budget. The Director of the OMB is the only position within the Executive Office of the President which requires Senate confirmation. All confirmation hearings will end in a vote of the committee. If a candidate loses the committee vote they are unlikely to win the Senate vote.




Types of Congressional Committee

Select Committees

which have an ad hoc membership. They are set up either when an investigation does not fall within the policy area of one standing committee, or is likely to be very time-consuming.


Standing Committees

Bills are referred to one of the permanent, policy-specialist standing committees.

· It is important to note that the committee stage comes before the second reading (debate and vote in the chamber of the House or Senate).

· Committees have full power of amendment.

· Because of huge numbers of bills being referred to each committee, many bills are pigeon-holed — that is, merely put to one side and never considered.

· For a bill that is to be considered, a hearing is held with witnesses appearing before the committee.

· Hearings may be conducted either in the full committee or in subcommittee.

· Hearings can last from hours to days, weeks or even months, depending on the length of the bill and whether or not it is controversial.

· Once the hearings have been completed, the committee holds a mark-up session — making the changes it wishes — before reporting out the bill, effectively sending it on to its next stage.

The committee stage of a bill is of the utmost importance because:

· the committee members are regarded as policy specialists, so others look to the committee for a lead

· it is as far as most bills get

· committees have full power of amendment

· committees really do have life-and-death power over bills

· The House Rules Committee timetables bills in the House, moving bills from the committee stage to the second reading. It assigns priorities to bills and gives a 'rule' to each bill passing onto the floor for its second reading, setting out the rules of debate, for example whether amendments are permitted from the floor. It is a key tool of political control of the House.

Conference committees are required because of two important characteristics about the legislative process in the US Congress:

1 Both houses have equal power.

2 Bills pass through both houses at the same time.

As a consequence, there are two different versions of each bill — a House version and a Senate version. And by the time the bill has passed through each house, the two versions are likely to be very different. If after the third reading in each house the two versions of the bill are different, and if these differences cannot be sorted out informally, then a conference committee is likely to be set up.

Conference committees (whose members are referred to as 'conferees):

· contain members of both houses

· have one function — to reconcile the differences between the two versions of the same bill

When the conference committee has come up with an agreed version of the bill, this must be agreed to by a vote on the floor of each house. There has been a significant decline in the use of conference committees since 1995. Both parties when in the majority have often resorted to a more ad hoc, leadership-driven approach, where one chamber is simply asked to endorse the legislation passed by the other chamber in a system


Standing committee chairs have traditionally been able to run their committees with more or less complete autonomy. They have the power to:

  • · 'pigeonhole' bills, delaying their consideration indefinitely

  • · control the committee's agenda, i.e. the order in which bills are discussed

  • · determine the timing and frequency of meetings and public hearings

  • exert significant influence over the number and composition of sub-committees, and the selection of sub-committee chairs

The chairmanship of a standing committee is the pinnacle of a congressional career for many members of Congress, and can bring considerable benefits for the district or state they represent. Loss of a congressional chair through a change in political control of Congress is usually greeted with much lamenting in the local press.