Committees are centers of policymaking at both federal and state levels. It is in committee that conflicting points of view are discussed and legislation is often refined and amended. Successful committee consideration of bills requires organization, consensus building, and time; only about 15% of all bills referred to committees are reported out for House and Senate consideration.
The Senate and House have separate committees with distinct rules and procedures. Committee procedure provides the means for members of the legislature to sift through an otherwise overwhelming number of bills, proposals, and complex issues. Within the respective guidelines of each chamber, committees adopt their own rules to address their organizational and procedural issues. Generally, committees operate independently of each other and of their respective parent chambers (Schneider, 2008).
There are three types of committees at the federal level: standing, select, and joint. A standing committee has permanent jurisdiction over bills and issues in its content area. Some standing committees set authorizing funding levels, and others set appropriating funding levels for proposed laws. This two-step authorizing-appropriating process is designed to concentrate the policymaking decisions within the authorizing committee and decisions about precise funding levels within the appropriations committees.
A select committee cannot report out a bill and is often created by the leadership to address a special problem or concern. A joint committee consists of members of both the House and Senate. One type of a joint committee is the conference committee, in which members of each chamber and party work together to address differences in their respective bills.
In congressional committees, leadership and authority is centered in the chair of the committee. The chair, always a member of the majority party, decides the committee’s agenda, conducts its meetings, and controls the funds distributed by the chamber to the committee (Schneider, 2007). The senior minority party member of the committee is called the ranking minority member (or ranking member). The committee’s subcommittees also have chairs and ranking members. Often, but not always, the ranking member assists the chair with some of the responsibilities of the committee or subcommittee. The committee chair usually refers a bill to the subcommittees for initial consideration, but only the full committee can report out a bill to the floor (Schneider, 2007). For example, the House Ways and Means Committee refers most Medicare bills to the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health. If the subcommittee wishes to take action on the bill, it usually will schedule at least one hearing to discuss the substance of the proposed legislation.
In very unusual circumstances, a few bills will bypass the committee process. This can only happen if the leadership of the majority consents. For example, according to a U.S. House Select Committee on Aging Fact Sheet, “Since the Roosevelt era, major pieces of social legislation, including civil rights reforms and labor reforms, such as the wage and hours bill, were forced to bypass committees of jurisdiction because the committees refused or delayed in allowing the House to consider them” (Pepper & Roybal, 1988, p. 1). In the end, however, committees and subcommittees usually select the bills they want to consider and ignore the rest. Committees thus perform a gate-keeping function by selecting from the thousands of measures introduced in each session those that meet their party’s leadership priorities and that they consider to merit floor debate.
Consideration of bills whose content overlaps the jurisdictions of different committees falls to the leader of the chamber to decide. Health care issues, for example, can cut across the jurisdiction of more than one committee. When this occurs in the House, upon advice from the Parliamentarian, the Speaker of the House will base his or her referral decision on the chamber’s rules and precedents for subject matter jurisdiction and identify the appropriate primary committee and other committees for the bill’s referral (Schneider, 2007). The Parliamentarians in both chambers have a key role in advising the member of Congress presiding over a bill on the floor. While a member is free to take or ignore the Parliamentarian’s advice, few have the knowledge of the chamber’s procedures to preside on their own. The primary committee has primary responsibility for guiding the referred measure to final passage. Referrals to more than one committee can have a positive effect by providing opportunities for greater public discussion of the issue and multiple points of access for special interest groups, but this can also greatly slow down the legislative process (Davidson, Oleszek, & Lee, 2007).
A committee can handle a bill in any of the following ways (Congressional Quarterly, 2009):