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What Is a Congressional Committee?

Committees perform fact-finding and other research tasks, reporting back to the full House or Senate before either chamber takes action or passes legislation on an issue..
Each congressional committee is headed by a chairman.
Both chambers of Congress have a number of standing committees.
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  • Written By: J.E. Holloway
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2014
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A Congressional committee is a smaller body within the United States legislature which has specific responsibility for a special issue. Committees carry out a wide variety of functions, including fact-finding, reporting to Congress on the conduct of other branches of the government, proposing legislation and approving nominees for public office. Many scholars of American politics have identified committees as the method by which Congress does most of its work.

There are several different types of Congressional committees. Standing committees are probably the most numerous and important. Standing committees are permanent bodies which employ their own staff on an ongoing basis and have responsibility for major areas of policy making. For instance, the House Armed Services Committee is responsible for all legislation related to the defense budget and the military in the House of Representatives. It controls six subcommittees and has substantial influence on national defense policy.

Select and special committees are Congressional committees convened for a specific purpose, usually to investigate an issue of national concern. They investigate and produce reports, but seldom produce legislation. A small number of select and special committees have evolved into permanent committees which produce legislation, but these are the exception. The last type of Congressional committee is the joint committee, which includes both Representatives and Senators.

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Although vital to the functioning of Congress, Congressional committees were not established by the Constitution. The role of the Congressional committee in legislation began almost as soon as Congress was established, but committees were initially ad hoc bodies, formed for specific purposes. Competing jurisdictions were common, and committees merge and separate as needed. The Legislative Reorganization Act, passed in 1946, regularized the committee system.

The number of members in a Congressional committee varies from committee to committee. House committees are typically larger than Senate committees. For instance, the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the 112th Congress had 45 members, 25 of whom were Republicans and 20 Democrats. The corresponding Senate committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, had only 19 members, 10 of whom were Democrats and 9 of whom were Republicans. The differing proportions represent the relative numbers of Democrats and Republicans in the two houses in the 112th Congress.

Each Committee is headed by a chairman or chairwoman, usually from the majority party in the chamber. The most senior of the minority party members on the committee is called the ranking member. Committee membership is determined by a resolution of the chamber, but the names put forward as part of the resolution are determined by the party leadership, who take into account the members' areas of expertise and seniority.

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