Considered Forthwith: Committee Primer

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Welcome to the 14th installment of “Considered Forthwith.”

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies.

This week is a special edition of Considered Forthwith. Instead of examining a single committee, I will look at the committee system in general this week. For one thing, Congress is in recess for Fourth of July (funny, I only get one day off for that). For another Meteor Blades is launching the committee monitoring project, so this seems to be an ideal time to go over the basics.

Note on sources: Much of the uncited material in this post is from these sources:

Roger Davidson and Walter Oleszek, Congress and Its Members, 10th ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2006)

Sarah Binder and Paul Quirk, The Legislative Branch (Oxford University Press, 2005)

James A. Thurber, Rivals for Power: Presidential-Congressional Relations. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)

The two most important things to know about committees

There are two important points to keep in mind when you are considering the Congressional committee system. The first is the actual power of the committees and the second is the relative power of committees in the House and Senate.

The most important power of the committees is to create the framework of legislation that will be considered by the whole chamber. Further, the committee can even decide whether or not to advance legislation at all. Indeed only a small fraction of bills even make it out of committee. Conservative Southern Democratic committee chairs used this power to hold up civil rights legislation, for example.

To use a worn out analogy, consider an architect at a major firm who has been assigned to “design a one family house.” If she designs a ranch home and turns the draft into the bosses for final approval, the garage may be enlarged and a bedroom converted into a bathroom, there is not much chance that the final product will be a row house. (When this does happen in the legislative context, it is called an “amendment in the nature of a substitute.”)  

The other important point to keep in mind is that House committees are generally much more relevant than Senate committees. For one thing, Senators have far more committee assignments (they average 11 vs. 6 in the House) and most majority members serve as chair of a full committee or subcommittee. Therefore, Senators have less time to devote to committee matters.

The other factor in this disparity of power is the rules of the respective chambers. In the Senate, bills come to the Floor by unanimous consent. This means that everyone has to agree to debate and consider the bills. Generally, the unanimous consent agreement is just a one sentence resolution saying that the bill will come up for consideration. On the Floor, Senators are generally free to offer any amendment, which can render moot the committee’s work on the bill.

In contrast, it is very rare for a bill to come up for consideration in the House without a rule from the Rules Committee. Rules, which are voted on before consideration of the bill, set the terms of the debate and determine which amendments are in order (i.e. can be offered). For example, Rep. Jeff Flake wanted to offer 11 amendments to “cut costs” from the FY 2010 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill. The rule only allowed him to offer four of those amendments (his choice). The result of this set up is that the House Committee bills are more likely to resemble the final product than those in the Senate. Click the link for the Rules Committee above for more details on the types of rules — open, closed, and modified — that can be issued.

The process

Oleszek calls committees “little legislatures” and the characterization is accurate. Once a member drafts a bill (or more accurately, has legislative counsel draft it) and submits it, the bill is referred to a committee (or sometimes multiple committees). Technically, this is done by the Speaker of the House and the Senate Pro Tem. In actual practice, parliamentarians routinely handle this function. The referrals are based on the committees’ jurisdictions. These jurisdictions, which are set in the rules of the Chambers, often overlap and it is common for bill sponsors to lobby the parliamentarians for favorable referrals.

Once the committee gets the bill, the chair (usually in consultation with the ranking member) decides whether or not to even consider the bill. Of course if the bill’s sponsor is on the committee (score!) or chairs the committee (bonus!) there is a good chance the bill will be considered and advanced.

It is worth pointing out at this point that each committee operates differently and the chair has broad discretion in setting the rules for speaking and voting and even the number, jurisdiction, and composition of subcommittees. One common custom, though, is that full committee chairs do not also chair one of the committee’s subcommittees. However, chairs and ranking members are usually ex-officio members of all of the subcommittees under the full committee.

The chair then decides whether to send the bill to a subcommittee or handle it in the full committee. Often, major bills will stay with the full committee while less important bills end up in the subcommittees. Of course, this is not always the case. The chair may decide to pass a bill along if the subcommittee chair has more expertise on the subject.

Then the committees start work on the bills. Admittedly there is always a lot of behind the scenes work, but there are three general types of committee meetings, which I will consider in the next section…

What am I watching on C-Span? Hearings, markups and business meetings

Business meetings are not often televised. They are merely regular meetings to get the members up to speed on the status of legislation pending in the committee.

Hearings are exactly that. These are formal opportunities for citizens (usually selected by members of Congress), special interests (i.e. both “good” and “bad” lobbyists), and other members of Congress to make their cases for the bill under consideration. For all the hoola and media coverage of hearings, nothing is officially accomplished here. Hearings are really just a forum to share ideas and viewpoints. Considering the hyperpartisanship in Congress and inattentiveness of the public, I would argue that not much actual persuading happens in these hearings, either.

A special type of hearing is the oversight hearing. Congress has a responsibility to oversee the functions of the Executive Branch. Most committees have subcommittees dedicated to oversight. In addition, the House has a full oversight committee. These are the people who make sure that the bureaucracy does not abuse it’s power. This is what we are talking about when we call for Congressional investigations. Often, just the threat of a Congressional subpoena can cause an agency head to make wholesale reforms. Furthermore, oversight hearings often attract media attention and the reforms Congress cannot or will not force can be achieved through public pressure.

Markups are the really the important part of the process because the committee actually changes the content of the original bill. At this point, members of the committee may offer amendments and speak on the amendments before they are voted upon. Committees vary on the actual voting process. Some hold formal votes while others, particularly smaller ones, can get away with voice votes.

Incidentally, if you cannot catch hearings and markups on C-Span, most of the committee websites do live feeds and archive the videos. When Nancy Pelosi took over as Speaker, she encouraged the use of live feeds to increase transparency in the government.

Of course, some hearings are closed to the public in the interest of “national security.” This includes most intelligence committee hearings and some related to the military and homeland security.

Final passage

Following the markup, the committee votes on final passage. If the bill was sent to a subcommittee, the hearing-markup-final vote procedure happens in both the subcommittee and full committee. On the other hand, the full committee will often just pass the subcommittee bill on routine legislation.

If the final version of the bill passes the committee, it is “reported out” of committee. Usually a staffer writes a report of the content of the bill. Quite often, these pieces are as much persuasive as they are informative since the committee has an interest in seeing its legislation passed.

As noted above, House bills go through the Rules Committee and their public website even has a link to the secure section for committee chairs to requests a rule. Anyone interested in tracking House legislation might want to get an RSS feed of the current bills.

Types of committees

There are three basic kinds of committee and the most important has two subcategories.

Select committees: Select committees are temporary panels that are created by the chamber leadership to investigate certain issues. Select committees may hold hearings, but not mark up legislation. One current example is the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Both chambers also created select committees to look into homeland security after the 9/11 Commission Report. The result was a reshuffling of committee jurisdictions to oversee the new homeland security bureaucracy.

Note that the intelligence committees are called “select committees,” but they function as regular standing committees.

Joint committees: There are a handful of issues that are either so routine or so important that it makes sense for the House and Senate to work together. The major joint committees are Taxation Committee and Economic Committee. These committees comprehensively study the potential impact of taxation and economic policies respectively. Some of the minor joint committees oversee the Congressional Printing Office and the Library of Congress.

Standing Committees: This is where most of the legislative work gets done. The committees are sometimes renamed (especially after a new majority takes over) and the jurisdictions get shifted, but the system is fairly stable. The two types of standing committees are appropriations and authorization.

Most committees are authorizing committees. Simply put, authorizing committees decide to write bills that create program X and authorize spending $Y on it. Both chambers have a single appropriations committee (with 12 subcommittees to handle the 13 routine appropriations bills) that decide to appropriate $Y +  or – Z. Z is a combination of $Y, appropriators whims, budget constraints, and earmark requests.

I hope all of that is clear. I had thought about including discussions of committee assignments and a history of the system, but that would take up another diary. Also, we will not have to worry about committee assignments until after the 2010 midterm elections.

Past Considered Forthwith entries:

House Education and Labor Committee

Senate Finance Committee

Senate HELP Committee

Senate Judiciary Committee

House Energy and Commerce Committee

House Ways and Means Committee

House and Senate Appropriations Committees

House Intelligence Committee

House Judiciary Committee

House and Senate Ethics Committees

House Science and Technology Committee

House Financial Services Committee

House Rules Committee

The Role of Committees

Crossposted on Daily Kos, Congress Matters, and my own blog.


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