The Committee System

United States Government

The Constitution does not specifically call for congressional committees. As the nation grew, however, so did the need for investigating pending legislation more thoroughly.

The committee system began in 1789 when House members found themselves bogged down in endless discussions of proposed new laws. The first committees dealt with Revolutionary War claims, post roads and territories, and trade with other countries. Throughout the years, committees have formed and disbanded in response to political, social, and economic changes. For example, there is no longer any need for a Revolutionary War claims committee, but both houses of Congress have a Veterans' Affairs committee.

The 106th Congress (1999-2000) had 19 standing committees in the House and 17 in the Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both houses: Library of Congress, printing, taxation, and economic. In addition, each house can name special, or select, committees to study specific problems. Because of an increase in workload, the standing committees have also spawned some 150 subcommittees.

And what do all these committees actually do? For each bill the draft of a law that comes before Congress the appropriate committee is responsible for conducting a thorough investigation of the proposal. The committee usually conducts hearings to obtain testimony from expert witnesses, who can include members of Congress who are not on the committee, executive branch officials, representatives of private-sector organizations, and individual citizens.

After all the facts are gathered, the committee decides whether to report a new bill favorably or with a recommendation that it be passed with amendments. Sometimes the bill will be set aside, or tabled, which effectively ends its consideration. When bills are reported out of committee and passed by the full House or Senate, however, another committee goes into action ironing out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the same bill. This "conference committee," consisting of members of both houses, completes a bill to all members' satisfaction, then sends it to the House and Senate floors for final discussion and a vote. If passed, the bill goes to the president for his signature.

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Source: U.S. Department of State