Order Code 98-241 GOV
Updated November 26, 2008
Committee Types and Roles
Analyst on the Congress and Legislative Process
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, but divergences have emerged over time. 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
and across chambers.
By the conclusion of the 110th Congress, there were 20 standing committees in the
House with 99 subcommittees, and three select committees. 2 The Senate has 16 standing
committees with 72 subcommittees, as well as four select or special committees. 3 In
addition, there are four joint committees.
This report was originally written by Thomas P. Carr, formerly an analyst in American National
Government at CRS. The listed author has updated this report and is available to respond to
inquiries on the subject.
One of the select committees — the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence —
operates, in many ways, like a permanent standing committee; it has four subcommittees. The
two temporary select committees created during the 110th Congress — the Select Committee on
Energy Independence and Global Warming and the Select Committee on the Voting Irregularities
of August 2, 2007 — have no subcommittees.
Three of these select or special committees — Indian Affairs, the Select Committee on Ethics,
and the Special Committee on Aging — have no subcommittees; the Senate Select Committee
on Intelligence has one.
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.
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, via the annual budget resolution, 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 do not fit
clearly within existing standing committee jurisdictions, or which cut across jurisdictional
boundaries. A select committee may be permanent or temporary. Select committees may
have certain restrictions on member tenure or may include certain specified
representatives (e.g., party leaders or certain standing committee chairs) as ex officio
members. Instead of select, the Senate sometimes uses the term special committee (e.g.,
the Special Committee on Aging).
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 a sixth oversight
subcommittee is permitted; several committees, such as the Appropriations Committee,
have been allowed — via House rules — a larger number of subcommittees.
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.