Written by Andrew Shipman
Congress, the sophisticated and intricate institution that is the workhorse of our government, has been effectively running for over the last 200 years. Power has shifted from one political association to the other as time has moved on, yet the same end result has happened: a strong people supported by a strong government. The Congress plays a key role in running our government, like executing tasks from passing laws and amending the constitution, deciding how the government will spend tax money, and shaping foreign policy for how we deal with other countries. Tasks and courses of action for Congress come in the form of a bill, act, or amendment.
Every piece of legislature at some point has to go through both the House and the Senate before it is signed into law by the President. The President can also veto the bill, which in turn can only be passed by a 2/3rds majority vote of both houses of Congress. Yet, how do the bills get so far through Congress, known to the members of each house, and where do they start? When a bill is introduced in a legislature, it is referred to a committee of that house, where the members of that committee and of sub-committees working under it will consider the bill and what action to take on it. The names of the committees indicate the sort of legislation that each committee deals with. In this blog, the difference between the four committee types (select, standing, joint, and conference) , how each are set up, and how their arrangement affects their behavior and how they act on certain legislature will be discussed.
The standing committees are the real workhorses of the congress. The Standing committees are legislative groups formed in both Houses of Congress. They are permanent committees and are created by law. They have the power to consider bills and issues, and recommend measures to other members of Congress. They can also hold hearings on many cases. Many of the standing committees recommend funding levels for all governmental operations and for the start up of new and existing government programs. (I.e. Budget Committees establish levels for total spending and revenue)
Unlike other committees that only last the tenure of 2 years because of the adjournment of Congress, these committees have existed much longer and have deeper roots in Congress than some of the newer select and conference committees. According to the book The American Congress by Steve Smith, “Committee members, and particularly chairs, are territorial about their committees’ jurisdictions and resist efforts to reduce or reallocate their jurisdictions.” The same members, if re-elected, use their seniority (the respect gained for the service in the institution of Congress) to either pass bills very quickly that help their cause or a desire of their state, or they halt the bill. The ability to obstruct action of a bill and halt it is often called “gate-keeping”, according to Steve Smith as well.
This ability to have an unlimited number of terms and possibility of re-election every few years, some members could use their seniority to take over many committees; this creates a problem. However in 1995, the Republican majority suggested that the House adapt a rule restricting the number of committee assignments its members may hold. The rule prohibits a member from holding more than two standing committee assignments and more than four subcommittee assignments on standing committees. However, members after re-election are still allowed to be in the same committee they were in a previous term, and some gain seniority and high roles when re-introduced back into the committee.
There are currently 17 standing committees in the Senate, while the House has 20. Each committee ranges from 6 to 50 members as well, with some members repeating in a few groups. There are also two committees (Committee on Committees for Republicans, Steering and Policy Committee for Democrats) that are in charge of assigning members of their respective parties to assigned positions on committees. Senators follow the same type of procedure, and are limited to no more than three full committees and five subcommittees. In the following clip, provided by C-Span video archives, this clip shows a simple meeting of the Homeland Security committee and the movement for adding 2,000 more border patrol agents.
Select committees are congressional committee appointed groups to perform a special function that is beyond the authority or capacity of a standing committee. This group is usually created on bases outlined with duties, powers, and procedures for everything, including inducting its members, by resolutions created by the overall institution of Congress (i.e. the House or Senate) These committees only serve a small, special purpose or problem. Since sometimes the problem or purpose is only temporary, the group life span is very limited. However, some problems that the Congress assign to these select committee, do in fact, rival some of the standing permanent committees already in place.
A select committee usually expires when it has completed its tasks; however, select committees can be renewed if future problems/tasks arise. Especially in the 1800 before permanent committees were fully created, select committees carried out a majority of the work of Congress. The first ever select committee was established on April 2, 1789. It was created to assign, prepare, and report rules and orders for House proceedings. The most recent select committee was established during the 110th Congress and renewed for the 111th. It is the select committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Another newly formed committee in recent years is the Intelligence Select Committee. In the following video provided by C-Span video online, the first meeting of the Intelligence Select Committee is in session, called in order to discuss national security threats affecting America today.
A joint committee is a Congressional committee consisting of members of both Houses and having jurisdiction over matters of joint interest. When both houses attempt to pass two different versions of a similar bill, a joint committee is created. This committee typically has roughly 3 members from each house. They set out to find a bill that is a compromise between the two different house bills, normally drafting several bills before a true compromise is drawn up. Joint committees are also created to do investigations of certain groups, or to discuss problems the two houses both have, such as the running of similar facilities and arranging celebrations and/or memorials.
There are a few permanent joint committees. Some permanent joint committees are taxation, library, printing, and economic committees. The video I have used to describe what a joint committee looks like has a very well known individual, even if you, the reader, do not know many members of Congress. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, is speaking to a joint committee on the economic outlook and what we have to look forward too in the upcoming fiscal year.
Last, but certainly not least, conference committees are appointed to resolve disagreements on a particular bill. Usually comprised of senior members of standing committees, these members get together when bills do not get passed through the second house. These bills begin by getting passed in the first house and vetoed in the second. The first house then requests a conference. From here, conferees get together and write messages to the second house on stipulations and ideas to meet. The second house then responds with the same treatment.
Major bills usually become law using a conference committee. This process is very easy if the two houses are on the same party-line. But in some situations, the House and Senate are politically divided, so coming up with a solution or compromise on a bill is very difficult. Changes are also VERY common. According to the bookThe American Congress by Steve Smith, “it is not uncommon for conference committees to insert provisions into legislation that did not appear in either chamber’s final legislation and remove certain provisions as well.” Conference committees come up with one, finalized version of a bill and send it to the floor of each house; if passed on both sides, it is directed to the President for signing.
The Congress plays a key role in running our government like executing tasks from passing laws and amending the constitution, deciding how the government will spend tax money, and shaping foreign policy for how we deal with other countries. Committees help run the day to day business of passing laws by creating compromises when different groups of people try and pass different bills of the same topic, especially when the different groups of people come from different party ties. Whether the topic has been going on-going since the start of our country like taxation to a recent topic that is protecting our country like homeland security, there is a committee that takes a few individuals and helps simplify the topic for our large policy making government who have many issues to tackle at all times. Committees simplify government and help keep this country strong.
The American Congress- Steve Smith
Wikipedia/ Encyclopedia Resources
C-Span Video Library for video examples