Social Policy & Programs Consulting
Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice
Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting ~ Community Matters
P.O. Box 97803 ~ Pittsburgh, PA 15227 ~ 412-310-4886 ~ firstname.lastname@example.org
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Committees Hold the Real Power in Congress
The most powerful people in Congress aren’t elected.
March 4, 2019
Since the Democrats took the majority of seats in the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections, congressional committees are big news. While the Senate, which is still majority Republican, languishes, House Democrats are busy.
The Constitution doesn’t mention committees per se, but they are constitutional. Article I, Section 5, Clause 2 gives each chamber of Congress - the House and the Senate - the power to make its own rules of procedure. Congress did that by creating committees, each of which handles the issues that fall within its jurisdiction. Congressional committees do most of the work in Congress and are very powerful.
21 HOUSE COMMITTEES
Armed Services Budget
Education and Labor Energy and Commerce
Ethics Financial Services
Foreign Affairs Homeland Security
House Administration Natural Resources
Oversight and Government Reform Small Business
Science, Space, and Technology Veterans’ Affairs
Transportation and Infrastructure
Ways and Means Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
20 SENATE COMMITTEES
Agriculture, Nutrition, Forestry Appropriations
Armed Services Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Budget Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Energy and Natural Resources Environment and Public Works
Finance Foreign Relations
Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Indian Affairs Judiciary
Rules and Administration Veterans' Affairs
Small Business and Entrepreneurship
Special and Select Committees
Special Committee on Aging Select Committee on Ethics
Select Committee on Intelligence
SIX JOINT COMMITTEES
The two houses of Congress maintain six joint committees on:
COMPOSITION AND STRUCTURE
The Party leaders assign members to the committees. In the House, that’s Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). The Senate Majority Leader is are Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). House members serve on one committee; Senators serve on three or four. Members can request committees in which they’re interested. Those with the most seniority are likely to get what they want.
Members of both political parties sit on each committee. The member from the majority party with the most seniority usually serves as chair. Committee seats go to parties in the same proportion that the parties have in Congress. So Republicans hold about 53 percent of each Senate committee and Democrats/Independents hold 54 percent of each House committee seats. Each committee also has a few sub-committees to help manage the work load.
PURPOSES OF COMMITTEES
Congressional Committees serve five purposes:
1. Advise and Consent
The Constitution’s Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 requires the Senate to advise the president on and consent to certain nominations to public office and to treaties with other nations. That’s why we see Senate committee hearings on the president’s nominees for cabinet secretaries, federal judges, and other positions. The Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2018. The Judiciary Committee handles nominations for the Attorney General and for federal judges and prosecutors. After a committee sends a nomination to the full Senate for a floor vote, then all senators vote either to confirm or deny the appointment. The treaty process works the same way.
Each committee reviews, adjusts, and approves or denies budget requests and appropriations for the federal programs and agencies that fall within its jurisdiction.
Committees review the performance of the Executive Branch departments and agencies to find out exactly how they are doing their jobs.
Every bill introduced in Congress is numbered (HR 123, S. 345, etc.) and assigned to the appropriate committee for review and analysis. A bill will not be voted upon by the full chamber unless the committee sends it to the floor. If a committee chair doesn’t want the bill to go to the floor, it doesn’t get there. That’s why committees are so powerful.
More than 6,000 bills are introduced to every Congress.
5. Ad Hoc
Congressional leaders create temporary committees as necessary. When the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill, an ad hoc conference committee of representatives and senators from each relevant committee, and both parties, settle the differences.
Dozens of hearings occur every day, so hearing rooms consume plenty of space in the Capitol complex. Committees hold hearings when members want information about a bill, nominee, treaty, budget request, or oversight issue that they’re considering. They can invite – or subpoena – experts, ordinary citizens, government agency employees, and others to testify. The House Judiciary, Intelligence, and Oversight Committees are currently investigating President Donald Trump’s activities.
Witnesses swear to tell the truth, and perjury carries criminal penalties. The bits of hearings that we see on television are usually the controversial or contentious ones, but the vast majority – the ones we don’t see – are quite mundane.
Hearings are usually open to the public and transcripts are available. Look at each committee’s website for schedules and ordering information.
Members of Congress have arduous workloads and grueling schedules, so they rely heavily on committee staff people. Staffers write most of the legislation introduced in Congress. They read and summarize bills, meet with lobbyists and the public, arrange hearings, conduct research, and update committee members on issues and events. Members don’t have time to read every word of every bill, so they base their decisions on those summaries. Committee staffers are probably the most powerful group of people in the Capitol.
WATCH A HEARING
I’ve testified at committee hearings at all levels of government, and it’s a profound experience. Committee websites post summaries of their hearings online. You can watch hearings – live or recorded – on C-Span.
The House and Senate websites contain links to all of their committees.
You can contact each committee’s staff on their relevant issues.
They're the best targets for your lobbying efforts.
Spend a few minutes with them. It’s worth your time.
For More Information
House of Representatives Committees
Find all Congressional Information
Read the Constitution