The Congressional Committee System

Who's Doing What?

US Capitol 1900
The US Capitol Bulding in 1900. Getty Images

The congressional committees are subdivisions of the U.S. Congress that concentrate on specific areas of U.S. domestic and foreign policy and general government oversight. Often called the “little legislatures,” congressional committees review pending legislation and recommend action on that legislation by the whole House or Senate. The congressional committees provide Congress with critical information related to specialized, rather than general subjects. President Woodrow Wilson once wrote of the committees, “It is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.”

Brief History of the Committee System

Today’s congressional committee system had its beginnings in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, the first and still the most ambitious restructuring of the original system of standing committees as used in the First Continental Congress in 1774. Under the 1946 Act, the number of permanent House committees was reduced from 48 to 19 and the number of Senate committees from 33 to 15. In addition, the Act formalized the jurisdictions of each committee, thus helping to consolidate or eliminate several committees and minimize conflicts between similar House and Senate committees.

In 1993, a temporary Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress determined that the 1946 Act had failed to limit the number of subcommittees any single committee could create. Today, the rules of the House limit each full committee to five subcommittees, except for the Appropriations Committee (12 subcommittees), Armed Services (7 subcommittees), Foreign Affairs (7 subcommittees), and Transportation and Infrastructure (6 subcommittees). However, committees in the Senate are still allowed to create an unlimited number of subcommittees. 

Where the Action Happens

The congressional committee system is where the "action" really takes place in the U.S. law-making process.

Each chamber of Congress has committees set up to perform specific functions, enabling the legislative bodies to accomplish their often complex work more quickly with smaller groups.

There are approximately 250 congressional committees and subcommittees, each charged with different functions and all made up of members of Congress. Each chamber has its own committees, although there are joint committees comprising members of both chambers. Each committee, going by chamber guidelines, adopts its own set of rules, giving each panel its own special character.

The Standing Committees 

In the Senate, there are standing committees for:

  • agriculture, nutrition, and forestry;
  • appropriations, which holds the federal purse strings and is, therefore, one of the most powerful Senate committees;
  • armed services;
  • banking, housing, and urban affairs;
  • budget;
  • commerce, science, and transportation;
  • energy and natural resources;
  • environment and public works;
  • finance; foreign relations;
  • health, education, labor, and pensions;
  • homeland security and governmental affairs;
  • judiciary;
  • rules and administration;
  • small business and entrepreneurship; and
  • veterans affairs.

These standing committees are permanent legislative panels, and their various subcommittees handle the nuts-and-bolts work of the full committee. The Senate also has four select committees charged with more specific tasks: Indian affairs, ethics, intelligence, and aging. These handle housekeeping-type functions, such as keeping Congress honest or ensuring the fair treatment of Indigenous peoples. Committees are chaired by a member of the majority party, often a senior member of Congress. Parties assign their members to specific committees. In the Senate, there is a limit to the number of committees on which one member may serve. While each committee may hire its own staff and appropriate resources as it sees fit, the majority party often controls those decisions.

The House of Representatives has several of the same committees as the Senate:

  • agriculture,
  • appropriations,
  • armed services,
  • budget,
  • education and labor,
  • foreign affairs,
  • homeland security,
  • energy and commerce,
  • Judiciary,
  • natural resources,
  • science and technology,
  • small business,
  • and veterans affairs.

Committees unique to the House include House administration, oversight and government reform, rules, standards of official conduct, transportation and infrastructure, and ways and means. This last committee is considered the most influential and sought-after House committee, so powerful that members of this panel cannot serve on any other committees without a special waiver. The panel has jurisdiction over taxation, among other things. There are four joint House/Senate committees. Their areas of interest are printing, taxation, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. economy.

Committees in the Legislative Process

Most congressional committees deal with passing laws. During each two-year session of Congress, literally thousands of bills are proposed, but only a small percentage is considered for passage. A bill that is favored often goes through four steps in committee. First, executive agencies give written comments on the measure; second, the committee holds hearings in which witnesses testify and answer questions; third, the committee tweaks the measure, sometimes with input from non-committee members of Congress; finally, when the language is agreed upon the measure is sent to the full chamber for debate. Conference committees, usually composed of standing committee members from the House and Senate who originally considered the legislation, also help reconcile one chamber's version of a bill with the other's.

Not all committees are legislative. Others confirm government appointees such as federal judges; investigate government officials or pressing national issues; or ensure that specific government functions are carried out, like printing government documents or administering the Library of Congress.

Updated by Robert Longley

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Your Citation
Trethan, Phaedra. "The Congressional Committee System." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Trethan, Phaedra. (2021, February 16). The Congressional Committee System. Retrieved from Trethan, Phaedra. "The Congressional Committee System." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).