How Do Senate Committees Work?

Learning About Congress

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) stands outside of the U.S. Capitol on August 2, 2011 in Washington, DC.
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Committees are essential to the effective operation of legislative bodies. Committee membership enables members to develop specialized knowledge of the matters under their jurisdiction. As "little legislatures," committees monitor on-going governmental operations, identify issues suitable for legislative review, gather and evaluate information; and recommend courses of action to their parent body.

Several thousand bills and resolutions are referred to committees during each 2-year Congress. Committees select a small percentage for consideration, and those not addressed often receive no further action. The bills that committees report help to set the Senate’s agenda.

How Bills Move Through Senate Committees

The Senate committee system is similar to that of the House of Representatives, although it has its own guidelines and each committee adopts its own rules.

The chair of each committee and a majority of its members represent the majority party. The chair primarily controls a committee’s business. Each party assigns its own members to committees, and each committee distributes its members among its subcommittees.

When a committee or subcommittee favors a measure, it usually takes four actions.

First, the committee or sub-committee chair asks relevant executive agencies for written comments on the measure.

Second, the committee or sub-committee chair schedules hearings to gather information and views from non-committee experts. At committee hearings, these witnesses summarize submitted statements and then respond to questions from the senators.

Third, the committee or sub-committee chair schedules a committee meeting to perfect the measure through amendments; non-committee members usually attempt to influence this language.

Fourth, when the committee agrees on a bill or resolution language, the committee votes to send the measure back to the full Senate, usually along with a written report describing its purposes and provisions.