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The Committee System. “Congress in Committee is Congress at work” - Woodrow Wilson (1888). The emergence of the committee system. Congressional committees aren’t mentioned in the constitution … or any early Federal laws

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The committee system l.jpg
The Committee System

“Congress in Committee is Congress at work”

- Woodrow Wilson (1888)

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The emergence of the committee system

  • Congressional committees aren’t mentioned in the constitution … or any early Federal laws

  • By 1820’s, federal government was beginning to look the way it looks today

    • Mass parties were coalescing, presidential elections became national, vote extended to all white males (and some free blacks)

    • In both houses a system of standing committees was established

  • This system has dominated the business of both chambers ever since

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History of Standing Committees

  • 1571, House of Commons establishes a single committee, “charged not with a single bill, … but with a general subject.”

  • By 1600’s, 5 standing committees in House of Commons: privileges and elections, religion, grievances, courts of justice, trade

  • American standing committees developed in colonial assemblies

  • By 1700’s, colonial committees appointed for whole sessions, had fixed memberships and well-defined jurisdictions

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Committee history in Congress

  • Originally, neither chamber had any standing committees

  • Only after deliberation by whole was a committee established to work on the bill

    • Committee had no veto power, modest proposal power, was dismissed after work on bill completed

  • Why no standing committees?

    • Not a radical concept (were used in many colonies)

    • Early forms didn’t entail tremendous amounts of agenda or decision-making power

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Why no standing committees?

  • A deliberate choice

    • Jeffersonian Republicans disliked idea of a small group being disproportionately influential at prelegislative stage

    • Felt principles of bill should emerge from deliberation

    • Federalists had no problem with standing committees, but felt they were redundant

      • Agenda-setting power of executive branch good enough

  • In reality, bills started being referred to legislators that had established expertise on the matter

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Change in Congressional organization

In the first 9 Congresses (18 years), the House had 8 standing committees. The Senate had 1.The House created 2 in the 10th Congress (1807-09)The Senate created 1.The House created 10 standing committees between 1812 and 1817. The Senate created 12.

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The creation of standing committees in the House: 1811-1825

  • In elections of 1810, new legislators from South and West came to Congress in pursuit of a declaration of war

    • Had suffered at hands of British

    • Brits had cut off European markets for agricultural crops that were mainstay of frontier economy

    • Believed that Brits had provided arms to Native Americans for purpose of attacking settlers

    • One of these new legislators was Henry Clay

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The War of 1812

  • Clay was elected Speaker in 1811, and began pushing President Madison for a war declaration

  • Stood as head of homogenous group of Southern and Western Republicans, and passed war declaration in 1812 against British

  • During war, 3 new standing committees established: Judiciary, Revolutionary War Claims, Public Expenditures

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Post-war Congress

  • After treaty of Ghent signed, signs of Republican coalition split

    • Disagreements over taxes, Western v Northern

  • Clay forced to search for new methods to gain control of House, since war no longer an issue

  • Expanded standing committee system solidified Clay’s support

    • “Bolstered flagging troops by giving them a permanent stake in the business of the House.”

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Development of standing committees in the Senate: 1811-1825

  • In 1816, Virginia Senator submitted a resolution to amend Senate rules by creating 11 standing committees

  • It passed and two weeks later a new Committee on the District of Columbia also added

  • Thus in 2 weeks, a standing committee system was born

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Why so quickly?

  • In first 30 years, Senate a reactive chamber

    • Responded to House and Executive initiatives

    • Surrendered much of its control over its agenda to external agents

  • By 1816, Congress had become estranged from Madison, and turned to standing committees to fill vacuum

    • Senate borrowed from House notion of standing committees, then extended this system to totally exclude earlier forms of organization

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External Events and Internal Structure

  • Timing suggests War of 1812 a catalyst; creation of committees usually linked to an important historical occurance

    • Louisiana Purchase (1803), Committee on Public Lands (1805)

    • Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam

      • Reconstruction-era reorganization of committees

      • Budget Act of 1921,

      • Legislative Reorganization Acts of 1946 and 1970

  • Pressures simultaneously disorganize and create a need for more coherent organization of congressional decision making

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Committees as workshops

  • When a bill is introduced in the House or Senate, it is usually referred to the committee with jurisdiction over its particular policy area

  • Committees allow for a division of legislative labor, enabling the 100 Senators and 435 House members to consider approximately 5,000 bills and 50,000 nominations a year

  • Means by which Congress “sifts through an otherwise impossible jumble of bills, proposals and issues.”

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2 Theories of committee purpose

  • Distributional: Committees give lawmakers influence over policies critical to their reelection

    • Those attracted to a particular committee are those whose constituents benefit from such policies

    • Filled with preference outliers, legislators whose preferences at odds w. membership of the whole

      Informational: Committees provide lawmakers with specialized expertise

    • Formulate policies that resolve national problems

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Types of Committees(Standing, select, joint, conference)

  • Standing: Permanent committees (last from year to year); agriculture, appropriations, armed services, budget

    • Process bulk of legislation

  • Select (or Special):

    • Temporary, usually lasting only 2 years

    • Usually don’t have legislative authority, but study bills and make recommendations

    • Coordinate legislation that overlaps jurisdiction of several standing committees (Select committee on homeland security)

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  • Joint: Include members of both chambers (House and Senate)

    • Economic, Library, Printing, Taxation

  • Conference: Reconcile differences between similar measures passed by both chambers (legislation must be identical before signed by president)

    • Composed of members of both houses

      4 types of conference bargaining:

  • Traditional: participants meet, haggle

  • Offer-counteroffer: sides suggest compromises, recess to discuss

  • Subconference: groups address special topics

  • Pro forma: informal preconference negotiations

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How and Why Do Members Value Committee Assignments

  • District Interests

    • Agriculture, Transportation, Armed Services

  • Advancement in Party /Chamber

    • Rules, Appropriations

  • Personal Interest

  • Visibility

    • Homeland Security, Judiciary

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How assignments are made

  • Formal Criteria

  • In Senate, “Johnson rule” is followed:

    • All party members assigned to one major committee before someone gets a second major assignment

    • These are: Appropriations, Armed Services, Commerce, Finance, Foreign Relations

  • In House, committees are ranked exclusive, nonexclusive, exempt

    • Exclusive can’t serve on any other standing committee

    • Can serve on two nonexclusive

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Informal assignment criteria

  • Seniority: Only Senate Republicans apply seniority rigidly when two members compete for a vacancy or chairmanship (most senior  longest continuing committee service)

  • Fundraising ability

  • Demographics

  • Issue Advocates

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Are Committees “Representative?”

  • Should they be?

  • “High Demanders”

  • Expertise

  • Partisan effects, seniority, “issue ownership”

  • Bargaining with the other chamber/President

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FIGURE 6.2. Median Conservative Score for Standing Committees, 2005-2006Source: Common space scores from

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Committee Leadership Committees, 2005-2006

  • Leaders are chairmen and ranking minority party members

    • Chairmen have similar role over committee as Speaker has over House (a mini-legislature)

    • Can set agendas, allocate funds, arrange hearings

    • Can kill a bill by refusing to schedule it for a hearing or convening meetings when opponents are absent

    • 1970s era: Subcommittee Bill of Rights

    • 1990s: GOP centralization of committees

      • Role of Appropriations Committee

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What happens in committees Committees, 2005-2006

  • 3 standard steps: public hearings, markups, reports

  • Hearings: committee listens to a wide variety of witnesses

    • Explore need for legislation

    • Provide a forum for citizen grievances

    • Raise visibility of issue

    • Educate lawmakers and public

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  • 2. Committees, 2005-2006Markups: members decide on bill’s actual language, conceptualize the bill

    • Outside pressures often intense during markup

    • Government in the Sunshine Act (1977) rules all markup sessions conducted in public (except Nat’l Security, some commerce, a few others)

    • After markup, if in a subcommittee, recommendations sent to full committee, which votes to ratify, conduct its own markup, return to subcommittee, or do nothing

      3. Reports: If committee votes to send bill to floor, the staff prepares a full report summarizing results of committee research