Order Code RL32015
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Senate Policy Committees
Updated April 25, 2007
R. Eric Petersen
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Senate Policy Committees
This report covers the history of the two Senate policy committees and explains
their structure, operation, and functions.
Created in 1947, the Senate Republican and Democratic Policy Committees are
party leadership structures. Each is an analytical arm of its respective party
leadership. Their fundamental missions are to achieve policy integration and to
promote party unity through the dissemination of information about policy and other
The two policy committees are different in structure and operation, a contrast
that appears to be rooted in different leadership styles within the two party
organizations. Republican leadership has traditionally been shared among Senators
other than the party floor leader; customarily, the Democratic leadership positions of
party floor leader, chair of the Democratic Policy Committee (DPC), and chair of the
Democratic Conference have been posts held by the same person. Additionally,
where both policy committees once functioned largely as service agencies, peripheral
to party leadership, today, the two party entities have assumed roles more important
to the overall leadership structure in the Senate. The style and activities of the
Republican Policy Committee (RPC) and DPC have, over the years, been shaped
largely by the party leaders, particularly when the party is in the opposition.
This report will be updated if there is a change in the leadership of either party’s
History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Structure and Operation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Republican Policy Committee . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Democratic Policy Committee . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Functions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Republican Policy Committee . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Democratic Policy Committee . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Policy Committee Chairs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
List of Tables
Table 1. Republican Policy Committee Chairs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Table 2. Democratic Policy Committee Chairs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Senate Policy Committees
The Senate created Republican and Democratic Policy Committees when it
inserted a provision within a supplemental appropriations bill, which Congress
passed in 1947. This act provided for the maintenance of a staff for majority and
minority policy committees in that chamber. As such, the policy committees have
a statutory basis, with staff financed by the legislative branch, different from other
party organizations, such as the campaign committees. The proposal for creating the
policy committees came about during the reform hearings conducted by the
LaFollete-Monroney Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress (1946). In
its final report (1946), the Joint Committee recommended that the House and Senate
establish policy committees for each party, consisting of seven members, separate
from either of the party’s respective Conferences, and with staffs paid through
legislative branch funds.1 These entities were modeled after the 19th century party
Steering Committees, which leaders employed to achieve an orderly method of
scheduling floor actions.2
The policy committees initially operated “unobtrusively” in the Senate. Early
meetings were rarely publicized within the chamber, “often conducted in secret,”
with only policy committee members and the staff directors present. The Republican
Policy Committee (RPC) did provide all Republican Senators with a resume of
meeting discussions and the committee chair would customarily hold press
conferences after meetings. By contrast, communication on what was discussed in
the Democratic Policy Committee (DPC) was done informally, through “word of
mouth” between individual Democratic Senators.3 Both policy committees of the
Senate relied on such early meetings to discuss and generate ideas about policy
matters. Formal votes were infrequently taken, and minutes were short and private.4
U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, The Organization of
Congress: Suggestions for Strengthening Congress, joint committee print, 79th Cong., 2nd
sess., June 1946 (Washington: GPO, 1946), p. 41.
U.S. Congress, Senate, A History of the United States Senate Republican Policy
Committee, 1947-1997, prepared by Donald A. Ritchie (Washington: GPO, 1997); and
Congressional Quarterly, Guide to Congress, 5th ed., vol. 1 (Washington: CQ Press, 2000),
Hugh A. Bone, “An Introduction to the Senate Policy Committees,” American Political
Science Review, vol. 50, no. 2 (June 1956), p. 339.
Malcolm E. Jewell, Senatorial Politics & Foreign Policy (Lexington: University of
Kentucky Press, 1962), p. 85
Structure and Operation
The Republican and Democratic Policy Committees are not alike in either
structure or operation. The contrast appears to be rooted in the hierarchy of
leadership within the two party organizations, which continues to influence the
composition of the policy committees. Republican leadership has traditionally been
shared among Senators other than the party leader.5 Different from their Democratic
counterpart, for example, the chair of the RPC campaigns for the position, and is
elected by the Republican Conference. Additionally, since July 1995, the Republican
Conference limits committee chairs, including the policy committee chair, to three
Republican Policy Committee
Senators converted the Republican Steering Committee (which then went out
of existence) to the Republican Policy Committee, with very few changes in 1947.
Senator Robert A. Taft (R-OH), chair of the Steering Committee, became chair of the
new policy committee, a position he retained before becoming majority floor leader
in 1953. Senator Taft’s decision not to hold both positions simultaneously prompted
the Republican Conference to elect a new policy chair, Senator William Knowland
(R-CA) who, succeeding Taft as floor leader, followed precedent and relinquished
his chairmanship of the policy committee.6 Table 1 lists the chairs of the RPC.
The RPC has undergone considerable change both in size and complexion since
its inception; changing functions at various times have led to expansion as well as
contraction of membership.7 There were nine Republican Senators on the policy
committee when it first met in the 80th Congress (1947-1948), with membership
consisting of appointments by virtue of office or official position within the party.
These included the chair and secretary of the Republican Conference, the Republican
floor leader, whip, policy committee chair, and four additional Senators nominated
by the chair of the Republican Conference and ratified by the Conference. This
membership structure remained consistent for the next six years. At the start of 83rd
Congress (1953-1954), the membership of the committee was expanded to include
two-thirds of the standing committee chairmen. In the following Congress (84th,
1955-1956), the policy committee was expanded even more to obtain better sectional
representation on the party panel, a balance between large and small states, and all
Republicans facing reelection who were made members to give them added prestige.8
By 1957, the policy committee was reduced to 14 members: eight ex-officio and six
elected by the Republican Conference.9
U.S. Congress, Senate, The Senate 1789-1989: Addresses on the History of the United
States, by Robert C. Byrd, 2 vols. (Washington: GPO, 1988), p. 188.
Bone, “An Introduction to the Senate Policy Committees,” p. 342.
Jewell, Senatorial Politics & Foreign Policy, p. 91.
Bone, “An Introduction to the Senate Policy Committees,” p. 342.
A History of the United States Senate Republican Policy Committee, 1947-1997, p. 60.
Today, the RPC is composed of the Republican Senate floor leader, whip,
President Pro Tempore of the Senate (if a Republican), chair of the policy committee
(who is elected in the Republican Conference), and chairs of the Senate’s standing
committees (if in the majority). In addition, the RPC has its own staff structure
separate from the Republican Conference, which includes a staff director, secretary,
and professional staff.
Democratic Policy Committee
Customarily, the Democratic leadership positions of party floor leader, chair of
the Democratic Policy Committee, and chair of the Democratic Conference have
been posts held by the same person. Until Senator George Mitchell (D-ME) became
Majority Leader (1989-1995), Democrats permitted their party floor leader to also
chair the Democratic Conference and the policy committee. Mitchell, however,
appointed Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) to serve as co-chair of the policy panel.
When Daschle became floor leader in 1995, he chose to maintain the co-chair
arrangement. In what appears to be a voluntary diffusion of leadership, in 1999, the
co-chair was abandoned and a single chair of the policy committee was designated
by the Democratic leader. Table 2 lists the chairs and co-chairs of the DPC.
When the DPC was established, the Democratic Conference adopted a
resolution authorizing the chair of the conference to appoint the membership of the
party’s policy committee, and the Conference chair to appoint the chair of the policy
committee.10 The conference also declared that the committee would consist of seven
members with the whip and the secretary of the conference attending meetings in an
advisory capacity.11 The first committee chair, Senator Alben W. Barkley (D-KY),
selected six relatively junior members on the basis of geography, purposefully
omitting other leadership positions, such as the President Pro Tempore and
committee chairs. These junior Senators were also chosen because they would be
“easier for him to work with.”12
Senator Barkley’s method of selection set a precedent. At the beginning of each
succeeding Congress, the Democratic leader named members to the policy
committee, in addition to himself as chairman. Membership of the policy committee
remained virtually the same, with the Democratic leader filling vacancies occasioned
by the death, retirement, or defeat of committee members.13 Members therefore
generally served on the committee throughout their service in the Senate.
U.S. Congress, Senate, Minutes of the U.S. Senate Democratic Conference, 1903-1964,
edited by Donald A. Ritchie (Washington: GPO, 1999), p. 389.
Minutes of the U.S. Senate Democratic Conference, 1903-1964, see Conference notes
from the 82nd Congress (1951-1952), p. 474.
Ralph K. Huitt, “Democratic Party Leadership in the Senate,” American Political Science
Review, vol. 55, no. 2 (June 1961), p. 342; and Minutes of the U.S. Senate Democratic
Conference, 1903-1964, p. 341. See also Legislative Reference Service, The Senate
Democratic Steering Committee and the Senate, by George Galloway.
Minutes of the U.S. Senate Democratic Conference, 1903-1964, p. 541.
In 1959, at Senator Lyndon B. Johnson’s (D-TX) suggestion, the DPC started
the practice of having the members of the Legislative Review or Calendar Committee
meet with the policy committee and take part in its deliberations. The Legislative
Review Committee was an arm of the DPC composed of three freshmen Democratic
Senators who handled calls of the Senate Calendar for the Democratic majority.14
Johnson sought to retain the chair of the DPC upon his election to the vice presidency
in 1960, an attempt thwarted when Democratic Senators unanimously decided to give
the conference itself the right to confirm or challenge nominations by the new
Democratic Leader, Mike Mansfield (D-MT), to the policy committee.15
Currently, the DPC consists of the chair, three regional chairs, and 16 additional
members. It appears that the party leader continues to have the discretion of
appointing such members.
Because the floor leadership and policy committee chairmanship were held by
the same person for so long, the staff of the Democratic leader served also as the staff
for the DPC. As a result, little staff work was assigned to individual Democratic
Senators, but rather was done for the chair, preparing legislative status reports,
compiling quorum records, and noting the presence and absence from roll calls and
votes.16 Under Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) the DPC staff, who reported directly
to him, negotiated for the Democratic leader with committee chairs and other
Senators on substantive and procedural matters. Staff produced some publications,
but oriented most of their efforts toward “personalized service to the leader rather
than provision of service to all Democratic members.”17
Today, the DPC staff remains, in effect, the staff of the Democratic Conference,
but they are generally more specialized compared to the past, with most policy
analysts holding advanced degrees in policy, law, and business, and are chosen
largely on the basis of their expertise. Several staffers specifically track legislation
by broad jurisdictional areas — such as trade, governmental affairs, welfare and
education, economy and small business, and foreign relations — and disseminate
information about matters to all Democratic member offices.18
Minutes of the U.S. Senate Democratic Conference, 1903-1964, p. 542.
Tom Wicker, “Senate Democrats End Johnson Policy On Committee Posts,” New York
Times, January 5, 1961. See also Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 2002), chap. 43.
Bone, “Introduction to the Senate Policy Committees,” p. 348.
Donald C. Baumer, “Senate Democratic Leadership in the 101st Congress,” in Allen D.
Hertzke and Ronald M. Peters, Jr., eds., The Atomistic Congress: An Interpretation of
Congressional Change (Armonk: ME Sharpe, Inc., 1992), pp. 327-328.
Sean Q. Kelly, “Democratic Leadership in the Modern Senate: The Emerging Roles of the
Democratic Policy Committee,” Congress & the Presidency, vol. 22, no. 2 (autumn 1995),
pp. 120, 125.
The style and activities of the RPC and DPC have, over the years, been shaped
largely by the “preferences and expectations of party leaders.”19 In his 1957 study of
the Senate, Citadel, Washington journalist William S. White illustrated how
differently the two party policy committees functioned:
The Republican Senate Policy Committee will meet once a week, but it will do
so only upon carefully printed notices circulated to the committee’s members
officially to inform them that there is to be a meeting. The Democratic Policy
Committee will meet — perhaps — once a week, and when it does the thing
seems simply to happen and members will stroll in, usually late, with the air of
a man dropping into another’s office to have a drink and, having nothing better
to do at the moment, to pass the time of day.20
In their formative years, the two policy committees functioned as service
agencies that prepared material on issues and legislation for party members. Both
party policy committees were peripheral to party leadership. How active they were
depended on the needs of party leadership as well as on whether their party was in
the minority or in the majority.21
The two policy committees generally have become more active in developing
and promoting party unity along with assisting the floor leaders and committee
chairmen (or ranking minority member) in designing, developing and executing
policy ideas within the Senate. These roles have become more important to the
overall leadership structure in the Senate.22
Republican Policy Committee
When the Republican party is in the opposition, its policy committee has greater
independence and more opportunity to set the Senate Republican legislative agenda,
develop party policy in opposition to the majority, provide summaries of Republican
positions on specific issues, research procedural and substantive issues and strategies,
and draft policy alternatives. In the majority, or when a Republican is President, the
RPC tends to function as a party “think tank” as well as in a liaison capacity to bridge
differences with the Administration. In this capacity, the RPC maintains a research
service that provides analytic reports for Republican Senators.
Samuel C. Patterson, “Party Committees,” in Donald C. Bacon, Roger H. Davidson, and
Morton Keller, eds., The Encyclopedia of the United States Congress (New York: Simon
& Schuster, 1995), p. 1525.
William S. White, Citadel: The Story of the U.S. Senate (New York: Harper & Brothers,
Publishers, 1957), p. 210.
Ritchie, A History of the United States Senate Republican Policy Committee, 1947-1997,
Kelly, “Democratic Leadership in the Modern Senate: The Emerging Roles of the
Democratic Policy Committee,” p. 134.
The principal function of the RPC in recent years has been to provide an
educational forum for Republican Senators. It also participates in the orientation
programs for new Republican Senators and their aides. Weekly luncheon meetings
are held, usually every Tuesday when the Senate is in session. Here all Republican
Senators are invited to review the Senate’s schedule, to discuss policy options, and
survey partisan strategies. Committee staff directors and legislative directors for
individual Senators meet once a week in the policy committee office with RPC staff
to review pending legislative issues and discuss strategy.
Policy committee staff perform a multitude of functions. They analyze the
legislative record of Senators, review legislative histories, draft bills, and produce a
host of publications. Important examples — that are distributed — include
Policy papers provide in-depth analysis of current policy issues and
layout legislative options.
Record Vote Analysis indicates how members of each party voted on
different legislative issues, provides a description of each vote and
highlights of the debate, and summarizes pertinent bills in their final
RPC Monday Floorcast is a one-page summary of anticipated floor
business during the coming week, intended to give members a sense
of the flow of Senate action in order to plan their schedules.
Legislative Notice summarizes the major provisions of legislation
under consideration, and provides information about possible
amendments that might be offered. Often contains pros and cons
relating to pending measures, and is meant to educate members and
staffers about policy issues.
The RPC is especially prominent in the use of new technology to communicate
the party’s message and agenda. Its in-house, closed-circuit television station (RPCTV) broadcasts to all Senate offices scheduling information and other messages from
the leadership whenever the Senate is in session. The RPC also provides a telephone
hotline available to Republican Senators calling on and off the Hill. It also maintains
a public website [http://www.senate.gov/~rpc], which provides a current floor
schedule and a summary of pending legislation.
Democratic Policy Committee
William White’s 1957 account of the DPC demonstrated a nascent aspect of the
committee: “it lacked the formality and institutionalization” that characterized the
Republican Policy Committee.23
Like its Republican counterpart, the functions of the DPC have changed over
time depending on whether the party is in the majority, and who is chairing the
Jewell, Senatorial Politics & Foreign Policy, p. 97.
committee. The first Democratic chairman, Senator Barkley, very rarely convened
the committee.24 His successors, such as Senators Scott Lucas (D-IL), Ernest
McFarland (D-AZ), and Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) used the policy committee
somewhat more frequently, but not nearly as consistently as their Republican
counterparts. Johnson was the first Democratic leader to use the DPC for getting
Democratic Senators to support the party position and to develop alternatives
intended to embarrass the opposition.25 Conversely, Senator Byrd chose not to
convene the policy committee.26 Following a 12-year hiatus, Co-chairs George
Mitchell and Tom Daschle established a central role for the DPC in promoting the
Democratic message inside the Senate and in public.27
Today, the DPC works with all Senate Democrats. It plays an important role in
facilitating consensus within the Democratic party, distributing information to
Democratic Senate offices, and building public support for the party’s legislative
agenda. DPC briefings, lunches, and strategy meetings for all Democratic Senators
and some staff, and have been used for an assortment of activities. These include,
but are not necessarily limited to providing guidance on drafting speeches, press
releases, newsletters to constituents, and radio and television advertisements relevant
to specific legislation, preparing reports for all Senate Democrats on the party record
and performance, and sponsoring annual policy conferences intended to educate
members on specific policy issues. These forums are used by Senate Democrats to
reach a common understanding regarding the party’s legislative initiatives.28
When the Senate is in session the DPC distributes a variety of materials and
publications for Senate Democrats.29 Most are for internal distribution, although
some are available to both the public and all Senate offices electronically at the
committee’s website [http://democrats.senate.gov/]. Among the more commonly
used examples are as follows:
Legislative Bulletins summarize major provisions of legislation
under consideration, supply pertinent information about amendments
that might be offered, and frequently present pro and con arguments
relating to the pending legislation. These bulletins are designed to
educate members and staffers about a policy issue.
DPC Daily Report summarizes the previous day’s action as well as
anticipate future action, including pending legislation, timing of
Bone, “Introduction to the Senate Policy Committees,” p. 342.
Bone, “Introduction to the Senate Policy Committees,” p. 352. See also Robert A. Caro,
Master of the Senate (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), pp. 507-514.
Baumer, “Senate Democratic Leadership in the 101st Congress,” p. 299.
Kelly, “Democratic Leadership in the Modern Senate: The Emerging Roles of the
Democratic Policy Committee,” p. 120.
Kelly, “Democratic Leadership in the Modern Senate...,” pp. 113, 122- 124.
Based on Sean Kelly’s participant-observation in the DPC, together with extensive
interviews with Senate leaders and staffers.
votes to be held, along with the nature and content of any unanimous
consent agreements. These reports help Democratic Senators plan
Issue Alerts briefly describe policy changes that Democratic
Senators may be asked about by the media.
Within the DPC are sub-units that engage in specialized services. These include
Vote Information Office provides a broad range services on voterelated matters, such as daily voting record sheets for each floor
vote, summaries of individual Senator’s voting activity, and a series
of annual documents reporting the previous year’s voting activities.
DPC Graphics/Publications Office supports individual Democratic
Members with a range of printed material, such as the design and
production of graphs and charts for use on the floor and at press
Policy Committee Chairs
Tables 1 and 2 below list all those Senators who have chaired (and co-chaired)
their respective party Senate Policy Committee.
Table 1. Republican Policy Committee Chairs
Robert A. Taft (OH)
William F. Knowland (CA)
Homer Ferguson (MI)
H. Styles Bridges (NH)
Bourke B. Hickenlooper (IA)
Gordon Allott (CO)
John Tower (TX)
William Armstrong (CO)
Don Nickles (OK)
Larry Craig (ID)
Jon Kyl (AZ)
Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX)
Sources: U.S. Congress, Senate, A History of the United States Senate Republican Policy Committee,
1947-1997, prepared by Donald A. Ritchie (Washington: GPO, 1997; U.S. Senate Historical Office
Senate Republican Policy Committee [http://www.senate.gov/~rpc/].
Table 2. Democratic Policy Committee Chairs
Alben W. Barkley (KY)
Scott W. Lucas (IL)
Ernest W. McFarland (AZ)
Lyndon B. Johnson (TX)
Michael J. Mansfield (MT)
Robert C. Byrd (WV)
George J. Mitchell (ME)
co-chair: Thomas Daschle (SD)
Thomas Daschle (SD)
co-chair: Harry Reid (NV)
Byron Dorgan (ND)
Sources: U.S. Congress, Senate, Minutes of the U.S. Senate Democratic Conference, 1903-1964,
edited by Donald A. Ritchie (Washington: GPO, 1999); U.S. Senate Historical Office
Senate Democratic Policy Committee [http://democrats.senate.gov/leadership/].