Frequently Asked Questions About Committees
What is the role of committees in the legislative process?
Committees are essential to the effective operation of legislative bodies. Committee membership enables members to develop specialized knowledge of the matters under their jurisdiction. Committees monitor on-going governmental operations, identify issues suitable for legislative review, gather and evaluate information, and recommend courses of action to the Senate.
For more information on the role of committees in the Senate see the "Operations" section of the "Senate Committees" historical essay.
What is the difference between a Standing Committee, a Joint Committee, and a Special or Select Committee?
Standing Committees are permanent committees established under the standing rules of the Senate and specialize in the consideration of particular subject areas. The Senate currently has16 standing committees.
Joint Committees include membership from both houses of Congress. Joint committees are usually established with narrow jurisdictions and normally lack authority to report legislation. Chairship usually alternates each Congress between members from the House and Senate.
Special or Select Committees are established by the Senate for a limited time period to perform a particular study or investigation. These committees might be given or denied authority to report legislation to the Senate.
Select and joint committees generally handle oversight or housekeeping responsibilities.
The different types of Senate committees are further explained in the essay "Senate Committees."
Where can I find information about a committee's jurisdiction?
A committee's jurisdiction can be found on its website. If the committee's jurisdiction is not listed on the site's homepage, then look under the subheadings "About the Committee" or "Committee Information."
How are senators assigned to committees?
Each party assigns, by resolution, its own members to committees, and each committee distributes its members among subcommittees. The Senate places limits on the number and types of panels any one senator may serve on and chair.
Members of select and special committees are officially appointed by the Senate's president or president pro tempore.
Where can I find a list of senators who have served as committee chairs?
A list of chairpersons of Senate standing committees (1789 to present) is available in the Committees section of the Reference section's Statistics & Lists web page.
What is the role of a subcommittee?
Subcommittees are a subunit of a larger committee. Subcommittees specialize in specific areas and help to divide a committee's workload. A subcommittee's recommendations must be approved by the entire committee before being reported to the Senate.
Where can I find a current subcommittee membership list?
A list of a committee's current subcommittee membership can be found on Senate.gov under the Committees Membership section. Simply choose a committee from the drop down list and then click on a subcommittee's link, this will take you to the current membership roster for that subcommittee.
Subcommittee membership can also be found in the Congressional Directory.
For additional information read the research guide "How to find subcommittee membership rosters."
What role do committees play in the Senate's responsibility to provide advice and consent to the president?
Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution states that the Senate will provide advice and consent to the president on treaties and nominations for executive and judicial posts. Senate rules XXX and XXXI state that treaties and nominations should be referred to the appropriate committee, unless otherwise ordered.
The Senate's process of considering nominations allows for lengthy scrutiny of nominees by committees conducting investigations and public hearings.
For more information on advice and consent in the Senate read, "Focus on the Constitution: Advice & Consent of the Senate."
How can the Senate bypass a measure's referral to committee? When is this done?
Rule XIV permits a measure to bypass a committee for two reasons, 1) to facilitate the full Senate's opportunity to consider a measure, and 2) to avoid a committee's potential inaction. Placing a measure on the Senate's calendar does not, however, guarantee the full Senate's consideration.
What is meant when a measure goes through the "clearance" or "hotlining" process?
When a bill goes through the "clearance" or "hotlining" process, it may bypass a Senate committee, or truncate the amount of time spent in committee. "Hotlining" or "clearance" is when senators are notified of pending, noncontroversial measures, and if no senators object, the measure can be passed by unanimous consent.
What is the difference between caucuses and committees?
A caucus is an informal organization of members of the House or the Senate, or both, that exists to discuss issues of mutual concern and possibly to perform legislative research and policy planning for its members. There are regional, political or ideological, ethnic, and economic-based caucuses.
Caucuses differ from committees because committees are subsidiary organizations, established for the purpose of considering legislation, conducting hearings and investigations, or carrying out other assignments as instructed by the Senate.
Where do I find the current committee hearing and meeting schedule?
In addition to individual committees' websites, the Senate website provides a list of upcoming meetings and hearings.
When is a witness' testimony available online?
Most committees post witness testimony on their websites shorty after the hearing concludes.
How do I find committee hearings?
Shortly after a hearing takes place, most committees post witness testimony on their websites. These testimonies often do not include the question-and-answer portion of the hearing. However, most committees provide access to the web cast of the hearing which often shows the hearing in its entirety. In addition, some hearings are published on GPO.
For additional information see the research guide, "How to find committee hearings."
How do I find out about requesting copies of a hearing's web cast?
After a committee's hearing has concluded, if a web cast of the hearing was provided, the archived version of the hearing will be posted on the committee's website. Contact the committee directly for information about requesting copies of a web cast.
How do I find committee reports?
You can read the full text of recent committee and conference reports online from (GPO Committee Reports or THOMAS) or find copies in a Federal Depository Library.
"How to find committee reports and conference reports," provides additional information on locating reports.
What type of information is typically found in committee reports?
Committee reports are created to help explain the "legislative intent" of a committee when it recommends a measure.
Reports typically include,
- The purpose or scope of the measure.
- The committee's reasoning for supporting the measure, including its findings and recommendations.
- A cost estimate.
- A listing of any changes to current laws.
For more information about committee reporting read the article on THOMAS "Committee Reports."
What is a conference committee?
A conference committee is a temporary, ad hoc panel composed of House and Senate conferees, which is formed for the purpose of reconciling differences in legislation that has passed both chambers. Conference committees are usually convened to resolve bicameral differences on major and controversial legislation.
For more information on conference committees in the Senate, see the chapter "Conference and Conference Reports" in Riddick's Senate Procedure.
What are the steps for sending a bill to a conference committee?
There are four steps for sending a bill to a conference committee, three of the steps are required, the fourth is not. Both houses must complete the first three steps.
Stage of disagreement. This is where the Senate and House agree that they disagree. As stated in the CRS report, "Going to Conference in the Senate", this agreement may be accomplished by one of the following:
- The Senate insisting on its own amendment(s) to a House-passed bill or amendment.
- The Senate disagreeing to the House’s amendment(s) to a Senate-passed bill or amendment.
- Once the House and Senate agree to disagree, they must agree that they want to create a conference committee to resolve the legislative disagreement they acknowledged in step one. This step is accomplished by either requesting a conference with the House and the House agreeing to the offer, or by accepting the House’s request for conference.
- Step three is where each house appoints its conference members. The Speaker appoints the House’s conferees. The Senate elects its conferees, or the Senate can authorize, by formal floor action, for the presiding officer to appoint the conferees.
- The final step in the processes is an optional step. During this step each house may provide a motion to instruct. These are instructions on the positions that the conferees should take during the conference, but the instructions are not binding.
How do the Senate and House proceed with a motion to instruct?
As explained in the CRS report, “Going to Conference in the Senate”, after the first three steps of creating a conference committee are established, each house may instruct the conferees to take a certain position in conference. These instructions to the conferees are not binding.
House- In the House, one valid motion to instruct may be made after the House and Senate agree to creating a conference committee (step two), but before any conference members are named.
Senate- In the Senate, a senator may move to instruct Senate conferees after the Senate takes all three required actions, but before the presiding officer announces the list of Senate conferees. The Senate does not limit the number of motions to instruct. All motions to instruct must be read before the Senate begins to debate the motion, unless it is agreed by unanimous consent to dispense with the reading. When debating the motion to instruct, unless the time for debating the motion is controlled by unanimous consent, any senator who is recognized by the floor may move to table the motion.
What documents are produced by conference committees?
Once a conference committee has successfully completed its work, two documents are produced.
Conference Report. A conference report includes the legislative language that the conference committee has agreed on.
A joint explanatory statement or statement of managers explains the conferees’ agreement while addressing the disagreements that led to the creation of the conference committee.
Each document must be signed by the majority of both House and Senate conferees. For more information on these documents see the CRS report, “Conference Reports and Joint Explanatory Statements.”
How do I find conference reports?
You can read the full text of recent conference reports online from (GPO Conference Reports or THOMAS) or find copies in a Federal Depository Library. In addition you can read the full text of a conference report in the Congressional Record.
"How to find committee reports and conference reports," provides additional information on locating reports.