Order Code 98-241 GOV
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Committee Types and Roles
Thomas P. Carr
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Structure of the Committee System
Congress divides its legislative, oversight, and internal administrative tasks among
more than 200 committees and subcommittees. Within assigned areas, these functional
subunits gather information; compare and evaluate legislative alternatives; identify policy
problems and propose solutions; select, determine, and report measures for full chamber
consideration; monitor executive branch performance (oversight); and investigate
allegations of wrongdoing. For more information on legislative process, see
The 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act (60 Stat. 812) sets the framework for the
modern committee system. The act organized the Senate and House committees along
roughly parallel lines, although over time divergences have emerged. Within the
guidelines of chamber rules, each committee adopts its own rules addressing
organizational, structural, and procedural issues. As a consequence, there is considerable
variation among panels.
Following organizational meetings at the beginning of the 109th Congress, there were
20 standing committees in the House with 92 subcommittees, and one select committee
with four subcommittees. The Senate has 16 standing committees with 69
subcommittees, as well as four select or special committees with no subcommittees. In
addition there are four joint committees.
Types of Committees
There are three main types of committees — standing, select or special, and joint.
(Party committees, task forces, and congressional Member organizations — informal
groups — are not addressed here.)
Standing committees are permanent panels identified as such in chamber rules
(House Rule X, Senate Rule XXV). Because they have legislative jurisdiction, standing
committees consider bills and issues and recommend measures for consideration by their
respective chambers. They also have oversight responsibility to monitor agencies,
programs, and activities within their jurisdictions, and in some cases in areas that cut
across committee jurisdictions.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Most standing committees recommend funding levels — authorizations — for
government operations and for new and existing programs. A few have other functions.
For example, the Appropriations Committees recommend legislation to provide budget
authority for federal agencies and programs. The Budget Committees establish aggregate
levels for total spending and revenue that serve as guidelines for the work of the
authorizing and appropriating panels.
Select or special committees are established generally by a separate resolution of the
chamber, sometimes to conduct investigations and studies, and, on other occasions, also
to consider measures. Often, select committees examine emerging issues that don’t fit
clearly within existing standing committee jurisdictions, or which cut across jurisdictional
boundaries. A select committee may be permanent or temporary. Instead of select, the
Senate sometimes uses the term special committee ( as in the Special Committee on
Joint committees are made up of Members of both the House and Senate. Today’s
joint committees are permanent panels that conduct studies or perform housekeeping tasks
rather than consider measures. For instance, the Joint Committee on Printing oversees
the functions of the Government Printing Office and general printing procedures of the
federal government. The chairmanship of joint committees usually alternates between
the House and Senate. A conference committee is a temporary joint committee formed
to resolve differences between competing House and Senate versions of a measure.
Conference committees draft compromises between the positions of the two chambers,
which are then submitted to the full House and Senate for approval.
Most committees form subcommittees to share specific tasks within the jurisdiction
of the full committee. Subcommittees are responsible to, and work within the guidelines
established by, their parent committees. In particular, standing committees usually create
subcommittees with legislative jurisdiction to consider and report bills. They may assign
their subcommittees such specific tasks as the initial consideration of measures and
oversight of laws and programs in the subcommittees’ areas.
Subcommittees may play an important role in the legislative process. Because few
chamber and party rules apply to subcommittees, the number, prerogatives, and autonomy
of subcommittees vary among committees. Senate rules do not directly limit the number
of subcommittees each committee may create. House rules impose a maximum of five
subcommittees for most committees (Rule X, clause 5(d)), but several committees have
been granted waivers from this general limitation.
Some committees create independent subcommittees with sizeable staff and budgets;
routinely refer measures to subcommittees for initial consideration; and allow
subcommittees to take the lead in framing issues, drafting measures and reports, and
holding hearings and markups. On other committees, most work is undertaken by the full
committee. Some full committees repeat all actions taken by their subcommittees, while
others review only major subcommittee work or even forward subcommittee-reported
measures to the floor with little change.