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Study Notes

Congressional Committees

AQA, Edexcel, OCR

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Congressional Committees make up an important part of the legislative process and provide an important part of the checks and balances present in US politics. There are different types of committees and they carry out a range of functions. Committee assignments are highly sort after by members of Congress. The Committees which exist permanently are known as Standing Committees, unlike the ad hoc committees which are known as Select Committees.

Functions of Committees

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.

  • Legislative Process [House and Senate]
  • Investigations [House and Senate]
  • Confirmation Hearings [Senate Only]

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.

House Rules Committee

The House of Representatives is home to the powerful House Rules Committee. This Committee is a standing committee whose job it is to prioritise the bills. It is often said to be the ‘traffic cop’ of the House. When the bills are reported out of committee, it is up to the House Rules Committee to decide among all the bills submitted which ones will make it to the floor and when. In addition to this it can set the rules on the debate and vote ahead. It can attach time limits to the debate and can attach rules on the bill as to whether the bill can have amendments added during the Second Reading. As a result, it is a powerful committee to be on in Congress. It is made up on 13 members, 9 of which are from the Majority party and 4 from the Minority Party.

Select Committees

Select Committees are formed on an ad hoc basis and are created to perform a special function. Generally it will be a function that cannot be carried out by the permanent standing committees, as it is too complex or would span across a number of committees. Select Committees are forms through resolutions passed through Congress and have the same powers of Standing Committees. Their focus tends to be investigative. A notable example of a recent select committee is the ‘Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi’

Committee Chairs

Committee Chairs are crucial in deciding the direction a committee will take and generally which bills will get heard. They always come from the Majority party in that house, therefore if the Republicans control the Senate then all Senate Committee Chairs will be Republicans. They are elected via secret ballots and are limited to a 6 year term, which was imposed by the Republicans in the 1990s. Prior to this committee chairs would have been chosen using the Seniority Rule. This meant that chairs would have from the majority party and be the longest continuous service on that committee. They could previously also stay chair of the committee for as long as they wished.

Important Differences with the UK

You should know the crucial differences in Committees between the UK and US. In the UK Select Committees are the permanent committees, whereas in the US it is standing committees. Another difference between the UK and the US

Further Reading and Study

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