Understanding the Congressional Committee System

. . .it is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United Statespublic exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.

Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government, 1885.


Most matters are accomplished by Congress in committees. Each chamber of Congress has committees that are established to perform very specific functions, making it possible to accomplish complex work in much smaller groups. There are more than 150 congressional committees and subcommittees. Each is charged with a variety of different functions; however, they are all comprised of members of Congress. Although each chamber does have its own committees, there are joint committees that include members of both chambers of Congress.

The House has more than 20 Committees, and the Senate has 16 standing Committees, and there are 4 Joint Committees.

In addition, the Senate has four committees that have the responsibility of more specific tasks; ethics, Indian affairs, intelligence, and aging.

Committees are chaired by a member of the majority party who is usually a senior member of Congress. Members are assigned to specific committees by their party. There is a limit to the number of committees that a member may serve in the Senate.

How Our Laws Are Made, from TheCapitol.Net

In most instances, congressional committees handle the passage of laws. Thousands of bills may be proposed in a single year, but only a small percentage of those are actually considered for passage (see our “Congress by the Numbers” page).

A bill that passes will typically go through four steps in committee; written comments provided by executive agencies, hearings held with witnesses testifying, the measure tweaked by the committee, and then finally the bill is sent to the full chamber for debate.

While many committees are legislative in nature, that is not the case with all committees. Some are responsible for confirming government appointees or investigating government officials while oversight committees are responsible for ensuring that government functions are carried out.

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