Refer / Referral (

From the Congressional Glossary – Including Legislative and Budget Terms

Refer / Referral


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Refer: Assignment of a measure to committee

Once introduced in the House or Senate, or passed by one chamber and sent to the other, most measures are referred to committee. Referral to committee occurs so that a committee can scrutinize the legislation by holding hearings and gauging sentiment for its enactment, and, if the committee proceeds to markup, proposing amendments to the parent chamber or writing, introducing, and reporting a new measure. To which committee(s) a measure is referred can have a significant impact on its fate. Referral of a measure is based on a committee’s jurisdiction, which, in turn, is determined by a variety of factors.

The principal factor in making a referral is Rule X in the House or Rule XXV in the Senate. Each rule lists the broad subject matter within the purview of each standing committee, although not all issues within a committee’s jurisdiction are identified. In addition, these jurisdictional descriptions do not explicitly identify jurisdiction over particular measures, executive-branch departments and agencies, or programs operated within those departments. Accordingly, the formal provisions of the rules are supplemented by an intricate series of precedents and informal agreements. A referral decision is formally the responsibility of the Speaker for the House and the presiding officer for the Senate. In practice, however, the parliamentarian in each chamber advises these officials on an appropriate referral.

A very important function of the parliamentarian in the House and the Senate is to advise the Speaker / presiding officer on referral of measures.

In the House, in addition to House Rule X, precedents and agreements affect referral decisions. In general, these precedents dictate that once a measure has been referred to a given committee, the measure’s subject matter remains the responsibility of that committee. The precedents further presume that amendments to laws that originated in a committee are within the purview of that committee as well.


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Referral is determined primarily by committee jurisdiction. Several other factors may influence the referral of a measure. The committee assignment of the sponsor often serves as a signal that a bill should be referred to a committee on which the sponsor serves. The timing of a measure’s introduction can also influence its referral; for example, introduction following a series of issue hearings held by a committee could signal that the panel wants to legislate on the issue it recently studied. Under House Rule X, the Speaker usually designates a “primary” committee to receive a referral. If other panels have jurisdictional responsibilities over some of the issues in the measure, they may receive a sequential referral.

A referral can also designate specific titles or sections of a measure within each committee’s responsibility. More common, however, is a referral for “issues within the jurisdiction of the committee.” Referral without designation of a primary committee can be made under “exceptional circumstances.” A sequential referral may be made after a measure’s introduction or after the primary committee reports the measure.

The Speaker has authority to impose a time limit on committees receiving a referral. Sometimes the time limit is determined at the time of referral; sometimes a time limit is imposed after a measure has been referred.

In the Senate, under Senate Rule XVII measures are referred to committee based on “the subject matter which predominates” in the legislation, commonly referred to as predominant jurisdiction. The Senate generally refers a measure to a single committee based on this rule and the jurisdictions enumerated in Senate Rule XXV.


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Predominant jurisdiction allows a measure to be guided to a specific committee, so that the referral predetermines its fate. Many senators, as well as lobbyists, understand that they can influence the legislative agenda by learning how creative drafting of a measure can possibly affect its referral. For example, is tobacco an agricultural issue within the purview of the Agriculture Committee, generally friendly to tobacco? Or, is tobacco a health risk, an issue within the predominant purview of a less friendly Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee? Or, is the issue about tobacco advertising, and thus within the predominant purview of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee? The drafting of a measure on tobacco is not simple if one wants a specific committee to obtain the referral.

The rule further allows a measure to be referred to more than one panel if an issue crosses jurisdictional boundaries or predominance is not clear-cut. Such multiple referrals are not common, in part because they are typically made by unanimous consent after negotiations among affected committee chairs. A joint motion made by the majority and minority leader for multiple referrals is also allowed under Senate Rule XVII, but it has never been used.

Finally, under Senate Rule XIV, the majority leader, his designee, or any senator may follow a set of procedures that allow a measure to be placed directly on the Senate’s legislative calendar without referral to committee. Placement there, however, does not guarantee that floor action will ever be scheduled.

Also see







Legislative Drafter's Deskbook: A Practical Guide

Legislative Drafter’s Deskbook: A Practical Guide

Pocket Constitution

Pocket Constitution

Citizen's Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials

Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials: A Guide for Citizen Lobbyists and Grassroots Advocates

Congressional Procedure

Congressional Procedure, from TheCapitol.Net

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