A generation of reform efforts beginning with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 has had mixed success. While the perceived abuses of the seniority system have largely been eliminated and the committee legislative process has been opened both to the Members and to the public, recurring frustrations with the condition and operations of the congressional committee system remain evident. Despite attempts to realign committee jurisdictions, to reduce committee and subcommittee assignments, to make committee procedures fair and equitable, to minimize schedule conflicts, and ultimately to improve the environment in which Members work, adequate solutions have not been found.
THE CURRENT COMMITTEE SYSTEM
Numbers, Sizes, and Ratios
The centralizing effect of the 1946 Act has been countered by a proliferation of subcommittees. From a 1950 low of 125 subcommittees of House and Senate standing committees, the number increased to a high of 271 in 1975. Since that time the Chambers have made significant reductions, although the 1993 figure of 201 remains large. Today's subcommittee system results in part from government expansion into new policy areas, efforts to disperse committee leadership, to democratize Congress, and attempts to foster specialization. As such, today's subcommittees are more heavily involved in considering legislation and conducting oversight than those of earlier decades.
Together with select, special, and joint committees, there were 252 committees and subcommittees following the organization of the 103d Congress. This represents a reduction of about 40 panels over the previous Congress due to the elimination of four House select committees and their subcommittees, stiffer limitations on the number of subcommittees per House committee, and decisions by the House Budget and Joint Economic Committees not to recreate subunits.
Since World War II committee sizes have increased resulting in more assignments per Member. Expansion of sizes has been attributed to Members' successful bids for additional assignments and the needs of party leaders to maintain an adequate supply of desirable seats to give out to colleagues. The average size of a House standing committee has increased from 25 to 40 Members since the beginning of the ``modern Congress'' in 1947. Seats on all House committees and subcommittees have increased from approximately 1,300 in 1947 to 2,600 in 1993, and the average number of assignments per Representative doubled from about three to six. The 102d Congress figures of 3,100 slots and seven assignments per Representative were considerably higher. Again, the stricter limit on subcommittees per committee and the demise of four select committees largely account for the lower figures of this Congress.
Senate reforms during the 1970s, motivated in part by overburdened Senate schedules, tempered the growth in seats and assignments. However, there has been significant increase in assignments since 1977 despite the stricter assignment limits of the Stevenson Committee; more than 100 committee and subcommittee seats have been added since the 1977 reform. Over the longer period, average standing committee size has increased from approximately 13 to 19 since 1947. Since the 84th Congress (1955-1956), total Senate committee and subcommittee seats have increased from roughly 900 to 1,200, and the average number of assignments per Senator grew from about nine to twelve.
House. House Rules currently provide for the 22 standing and 1 permanent select committee of the House. For each new Congress party leaders negotiate the size of committees, which currently range from 12 to 63. From 1947 through 1975 sizes of standing committees were contained in Chamber rules, although the House usually adjusted them prior to making assignments. To give party leaders greater flexibility, sizes were stripped from Chamber rules as a result of the Bolling Committee reforms.
Party leaders also determine the ratio of majority to minority party members on each committee. Under current Democratic Caucus Rules, each standing committee (except Standards) must have at least three Democrats for every two Republicans. While this ratio roughly approximates the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the overall Chamber, the majority party usually accords itself a super-majority on important panels including Appropriations, Budget, Rules, and Ways and Means.
The subcommittee system in the House is highly structured. House Rules set a minimum number of subcommittees per committee, and Democratic Caucus Rules set a maximum. Under Chamber rules originating in 1975, each standing committee (except Budget) with more than 20 Members must establish at least four subcommittees. Under a 1993 Caucus Rule, most exclusive and major committees are capped at six subcommittees while non-major committees are capped at five. In 1981 Caucus Rules began limiting the number of subcommittees per committee, resulting in the first actual reduction in House subcommittees in three decades. From 1981 through 1992, committees (except Appropriations) had been limited to between six and eight subcommittees.
Within the guidelines of House and party rules, the Democrats on each legislative committee determine not only the number of subcommittees but the size of each. Subcommittees may not exceed 60 percent of the full committee's size under Caucus Rules in an effort to prevent them from becoming too unwieldy. Prior to the 103d Congress the maximum had been 70 percent. Democrats on each committee also largely determine the party ratio on each subcommittee, which under Caucus Rules must be no less favorable than the full committee ratio. The decisions of each committees' Democrats on subcommittee numbers, sizes, and ratios do not require approval by the full Democratic Caucus or House.
Senate. In the Senate, Chamber rules and standing orders provide for the 17 standing and 3 select/special committees, as well as the size of each. In practice, however, the size of each committee is set for each Congress through negotiations of the party leaders, and Chamber rules are amended to reflect new sizes approved by the Senate. Committee sizes are adjusted primarily to accommodate Members' requests for positions, and occasionally to give the majority party working majorities on all committees. Current committee sizes range from a low of 6 to a high of 29. Party leaders also determine the ratio of majority to minority members on each committee, and these ratios tend to more closely approximate each party's overall strength in the Chamber than is the case in the House. In fact, when a Senator of one party is replaced in Congress by a Senator of the opposite party, committee ratios usually change to reflect the new Chamber party division.
Senate subcommittee structure is largely unregulated. The Senate does not have an explicit minimum or maximum number of allowable subcommittees per committee. While restrictions on subcommittee assignments and leadership positions constitute implicit limits, Senate committee chairmen have wide latitude in establishing subcommittees. Thus, Senate committees exhibit more variation than House panels. During the 103d Congress, standing committees average five subcommittees, while two have eight subcommittees, and four committees operate with none. In some instances committee chairmen have established as many subcommittees as there are majority party Senators interested in chairing them. Committee chairmen also have discretion in determining the size and party ratio of each subcommittee, in the absence of Chamber and party guidelines. Subcommittees tend to be small, averaging nine Senators. As in the House, Chamber review of subcommittee structure is not required.
Each party adopts its own procedures for assigning Members to committees, and the real decisions are made in the full party caucus on the recommendation of the party's assignment panel. The current method of appointing Members to committees dates to 1846 in the Senate and to 1911 in the House, although requiring caucus approval of the committee slates developed more recently. 14
House Democrats use the Steering and Policy Committee to make nominations for committee assignments, while the Republicans use the (House) Committee on Committees. The Speaker and Minority Leader head their assignment panels. Steering and Policy currently consists of 35 members and is regarded as leadership dominated; it includes several members of the Democratic leadership, several Members appointed by the Speaker, four committee chairmen, and twelve regionally-elected members. Twenty-three Republicans presently constitute the Committee on Committees, including the Minority Leader, the Minority Whip, a representative of the sophomore class (102d), and three representatives of the freshman class (103d). The other members represent states, or groups of states, that have Republican Representatives in Congress. For example, each state with four or more Republicans chooses its own representative on the Committee on Committees, while the states with one Republican Representative divide into two groups, and each group elects one member. When voting on committee assignments, Members of the Committee on Committees receive weighted votes based on the number of Republicans they represent.
In the Senate, the Democratic Steering Committee assigns Democrats to committees while the Republicans use the (Senate) Committee on Committees. The size of the Steering Committee is set by the party conference and may fluctuate from Congress to Congress; presently it has 25 Members. Although the Majority Leader does not head the panel, he appoints its members and serves on it. The GOP Conference Chairman appoints the members of the Committee on Committees, subject to confirmation by the Conference. The smallest of the panels, the Committee on Committees, has only six members including the Minority Leader who serves on it in an ex-officio capacity. The Committee is relatively small because it relies on a seniority formula for assigning Members, which makes the process somewhat automatic.
The assignment panels generally draw up slates of members for each committee indicating who will be the chairman or ranking member. Exceptions include: (1) the Senate Republican leader may make assignments to certain committees; (2) the House Speaker and Minority Leader choose members of the Rules Committee; and (3) the House Speaker generally names members of joint and select committees, appointing minority members on the recommendation of the Minority Leader. In choosing committee members and leaders, the assignment panels consider a variety of factors including Members' seniority and requests for assignments, as well as the geographic and ideological balance on each committee. While the panels are not required to choose committee chairmen and ranking members based on seniority, rarely is the seniority custom ignored, especially in the Senate.
Assignment panels also are guided by limitations on assignment, chairmanship, and ranking membership positions that have evolved over the decades. For example, in both Chambers generally no Member can serve as chairman or ranking member of more than one committee. Assignment limitations are intended to treat Members equitably and fairly, while restrictions on committee leadership positions limit the power of senior Members and give more Members the opportunity for policy leadership and influence. Both Chambers formalized practices restricting committee leadership positions in the 1970s, although informal practices in these area also began decades earlier.
The recommendations of the assignment panels must be approved by the appropriate party conference/caucus. At this stage all members of each party vote on their party's lists, and secret ballots may be used. Normally party approval of the slates is automatic, but the parties have the right to reject any nomination; occasionally the choice for chairman or ranking member is rejected. Once approved by the party conference/caucus, the assignment slates are incorporated into resolutions and voted on by the full Chamber. These votes usually are pro forma, because the decisions have been made beforehand.
Once assigned, Members infrequently switch committees in part because of the loss of seniority. Switching committees primarily occurs in the first or second terms. Members are not limited as to length of service on committees, except in a few cases. For example, both Chambers limit tenure on the Intelligence Committee, and the House limits Budget Committee service as well. The Intelligence Committee limit was imposed to encourage effective oversight while the Budget Committee limit was supported by Members who feared that the Committee would become too powerful. Some Members have supported service limits in an effort to broaden their knowledge base through exposure to more committees and issues, to make committees more reflective of the Chambers, and to encourage more emphasis on leadership ability and other criteria (rather than seniority) in choosing committee leaders. In the 103d Congress House Republicans took the historic step of limiting the tenure of full committee ranking members to no more than three consecutive terms, excluding prior service.
Presently most assignment and leadership limitations for Senators are in Chamber rules; by contrast, restrictions on Representatives are in party rules and they differ between the parties. Representatives serve on an average of six committees and subcommittees while the Senators average twice that number.
House. For assignment purposes, both parties have grouped standing committees into three categories -- exclusive, major, and non-major for Democrats and red, white, and blue for Republicans. The Democratic and Republican categories are similar but not identical. While the current Democratic categories are the same as those first incorporated into Caucus Rules in 1975, Republican categories tend to be somewhat more fluid. Membership on select and joint committees is not subject to party restrictions; the Speaker assigns Members to these panels, appointing Republicans on the recommendation of the Minority Leader.
Most Representatives may serve on two standing committees. However, Democrats may only serve on one exclusive committee (Appropriations, Rules, Ways and Means) and Republicans may only serve on one red committee (Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Rules, Ways and Means). Other Democrats generally may serve on either a major and a non-major committee, or two non-major committees. Other Republicans generally may serve on one white and one blue committee, or two blue committees. Certain standing committees are exempted from these restrictions by both Democratic Caucus and Republican Conference Rules. For instance, both parties allow Members to serve on the Standards of Official Conduct Committee without regard to their other assignments. Democratic Caucus Rules also provide exemptions for the District of Columbia and House Administration Committees, and for members assigned to the Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees during particular Congresses.
Waivers have always been granted to the rules limiting assignments, and this Congress is no exception. Currently about one in five Representatives has received waivers by the party caucus/conference. Waivers are authorized to accommodate Members' requests for assignments, to achieve party balance on panels, and to fill unpopular slots. Sometimes Members serve on extra committees temporarily until a permanent replacement can be found. Although the House ultimately votes to approve all standing committee assignments, no specific Chamber action is required on waiver requests.
In addition, no Democrat may chair, and no Republican may rank on, more than one full committee of any type. Further, no Democrat may chair more than one subcommittee with legislative jurisdiction. Republicans are limited to ranking membership on two subcommittees, which may not be of the same committee. These restrictions are seldom waived. Effective with the 104th Congress, Republicans will be generally limited to one full committee or subcommittee ranking membership position.
Much of the independence of subcommittees derives from the fact that full committee chairmen no longer appoint their members and leaders. Today each committees' Democrats use a bidding process, generally in order of full committee seniority, to choose the subcommittees they want to serve on and chair. Under this procedure, each Member gets one subcommittee slot before any Member gets a second. Subcommittee memberships do not require full Democratic Caucus or House approval, except that the Caucus votes to approve the subcommittee chairmen of Appropriations and Ways and Means. Democrats are generally restricted to service on not more than five subcommittees.
Full committee ranking Republicans choose subcommittee members and leaders, and must publish the procedure for doing so. A majority of full committee Republicans can modify the procedure or overturn the choices of subcommittee ranking members. The process is usually collegial, and many committees use a bidding process similar to House Democrats. Conference Rules do not explicitly limit the number of subcommittee assignments for Republicans.
Senate. Senate Rule XXV identifies committee assignment and leadership restrictions for all Senators. It divides all committees, including joint committees, into three categories, commonly called ``A'' ``B'' and ``C,'' which originated with the 1970 Act. Senators are limited to no more than two ``A'' and one ``B'' committees, with service on ``C'' committees unrestricted. Nevertheless, waivers of these restrictions are fairly easily granted. More than half of the current Senators -- 53 Senators -- serve on additional ``A'' or ``B'' committees, including five who serve on both an additional ``A'' and an additional ``B.'' The full Senate votes to approve resolutions containing waivers, which do not explicitly specify the recipient Senators. They are traditionally agreed to en bloc by voice vote.
Both parties have informal restrictions that supplement Chamber rules. For example, to achieve geographical and ideological balance on committees, two Senators from the same State and party usually are not given the same committee assignment. Also, both parties have a principle of allowing Members to serve on only one of the top committees -- Appropriations, Armed Services, Finance, and Foreign Relations. These party principles are not inviolable; three Senators currently serve on two of the ``big four'' committees. (Among their top committees, the Democrats sometimes include Commerce, and the Republican roster at times includes Budget.)
Chamber rules prohibit Senators from chairing more than one committee, and the minority party traditionally limits ranking memberships to one committee as well. A full committee chair may head two subcommittees. (An ``A'' committee chair may head one ``A'' and one ``B'' subcommittee, while a ``B'' committee chair may head two ``A'' subcommittees.) Other Senators may chair three subcommittees, one of each of their committees.
Senate full committee chairmen have great latitude in choosing subcommittee members and leaders. In general, the process is collaborative, with Senators assisting in creating subcommittees and selecting those on which they wish to serve. Many committees use a procedure whereby each Member chooses one subcommittee before any Member chooses a second, and so on. However, since 1977 the Senate has limited Senators to two subcommittees per ``A'' committee and one per ``B'' committee.
Since their codification in 1946, House and Senate committee jurisdictions have formally changed infrequently. In the House, notable changes resulted from the work of the Bolling and Patterson Committees, and the Stevenson Committee produced significant changes to Senate committee jurisdictions. The Senate reform was somewhat more comprehensive than the House efforts, and Senate jurisdictional language was clarified and altered to reflect contemporary issues more so than House jurisdictional language. Over the years both Chambers have abolished or created committees with legislative responsibility, affecting the jurisdictions of other panels. For example, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee was created under the 1970 Act by transferring issues from the Energy and Natural Resources, Finance, and Labor and Human Resources Committees. In addition, committee jurisdictions are not static; they continually evolve through precedent, agreements between committees, and changes in the scope of government policy. House Rule X and Senate Rule XXV set forth current jurisdictions of standing committees.
Committees in each Chamber vary considerably in jurisdictional breadth and workload. Some committees handle only one or a few matters, while others address numerous, wide-ranging issues. Workload indicators show similar variation. Some committees consider and report dozens of measures and hold hundreds of hearings and meetings, other panels produce few legislative products and meet less frequently.
In addition to the standing committees, one or more select committees in each Chamber have legislative authority, in some cases limited. Of the three Senate select committees, only Aging lacks legislative responsibility. The House Intelligence Committee, that Chamber's only select panel, also has legislative authority. These select committees, however, tend to be responsible for fewer or more narrow policy issues than the standing committees. From time to time both Chambers also have used short-term select committees to conduct studies and investigations. The Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, which existed in the 102d Congress, is one recent example. In addition, none of the current five joint committees has legislative authority; they conduct research and oversight and perform housekeeping duties. Most past joint committees have had similar functions.
The two committee systems are somewhat similar. Each Chamber has standing committees on issues including agriculture; appropriations; armed services; budget; taxes; judiciary; foreign relations; banking, housing, and urban affairs; education and labor; energy; veterans' affairs; government operations; the environment; public works; commerce; small business; transportation; science and technology; natural resources; and ethics, rules, and administration.
Nevertheless, the systems are distinct. The Chambers use different numbers and names of committees and distribute subject jurisdiction differently among them. The Senate consolidates jurisdictions within 17 standing committees while the House apportions responsibility among 22. Moreover, the jurisdictions of House and Senate committees of the same name, such as Judiciary, do not match exactly. For example, the Senate Judiciary Committee handles measures pertaining to holidays and celebrations whereas in the House this issue is within the purview of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee. Even where a particular jurisdictional term is assigned to the House and Senate committees of the same name, it may have a different meaning in each Chamber.
Since the 19th century, committees have created subcommittees to handle one or more policy issues within their purview. Nevertheless, House committees have been required to give their subcommittees written jurisdictions only since the 1973 adoption of the ``Subcommittee Bill of Rights.'' Currently, the Democrats on each committee determine the jurisdictions and titles of subcommittees, and measures are referred accordingly, unless full committee Democrats vote within 2 weeks to retain a particular measure at the full committee level.
More than half of the Senate committees give their subcommittees written jurisdictions, although there is no such requirement. Senate full committee chairmen have the discretion to determine subcommittee jurisdictions and titles; generally they collaborate with other committee members. Other Senate committees denote subcommittee responsibilities by their titles only, while still others operate without subcommittees.
Subcommittee jurisdictions are more fluid than those of the full committees. Committees alter subcommittee jurisdictions for a variety of reasons, including efforts to accommodate new committee or subcommittee leaders or to adjust to emerging issues.
In referring measures to committees, the Chambers rely not only on formal rule language (House Rule X and Senate Rule XXV) but precedents that have developed over the years and informal agreements between committees. Whereas some agreements are for referral of only one bill, others become permanent supplements to official jurisdictional language. For example, under a March 3, 1988, unanimous consent agreement, measures authorizing the National Science Foundation first are referred to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and then the reported versions are sequentially referred to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
Most measures are referred to only one committee in the House and Senate, but both Chambers permit their referral to two or more committees. Multiple referrals are common in the House, but relatively infrequent in the Senate. They occur for various reasons: committee jurisdictions overlap, today's omnibus measures often address many subjects, and all aspects of an issue are not always handled by one committee. An example of the latter is drug policy, which is not specifically identified in jurisdictional language. Rather, many committees handle aspects of the issue, including Education and Labor for drug use in schools, Energy and Commerce for health effects of drugs, Foreign Affairs for international drug interdiction, and Judiciary for criminal penalties for drug users. Many measures pertaining to broad policy areas, such as energy, the environment, health, and trade, do not fit neatly into the confines of one committee and thus often are multiply referred.
Both Chambers permit three basic types of multiple referrals. Under a joint referral, a measure is referred to two or more committees simultaneously. By contrast, under a sequential referral, after a measure is reported by one committee it is then referred to a second, etc . . A split referral allows separate sections of a measure to be sent to different committees for consideration. Joint referrals are by far the most common and often do not specify which portions of the measure each committee is to consider; however, committees are limited to the consideration of provisions within their respective jurisdictions. Split referrals are rare due to the difficulty of isolating provisions of measures. Sequential referrals occur frequently, often at the initiative of the committee interested in considering the bill.
In the Senate, multiple referrals have long been permitted but they are seldom used. Senate Rule XVII paragraph 3(a) provides for multiple referrals by joint motion of the majority and minority leaders (or their designees). In practice all multiple referrals occur by unanimous consent. Far more common is the reference of a measure to one committee only, based on the ``subject matter which predominates in such proposed legislation'' as stated in Rule XVII. As a result, multiple referrals are relatively uncommon -- two to four percent of all referrals over the last three Congresses.
A House rule allowing multiple referrals took effect in 1975, as recommended by the Bolling Committee. While previously measures were occasionally multiply referred, overwhelmingly measures were referred exclusively to the committee of primary jurisdiction and not to committees with secondary interests. Nevertheless, multiple committees informally conferred on measures of mutual interest. The new multiple referral rule was to have been adopted along with fairly extensive jurisdictional changes, but the House agreed to less comprehensive jurisdictional realignment. The current authority for multiple referrals is contained in House Rule X, Clause 5 which in part states that any matter will be referred to ``each committee which has jurisdiction'' over ``any provision thereof.''
The percentage of measures multiply referred in the House has increased steadily since 1975, and the 102d Congress figure of 18 percent is triple that of the 94th Congress (6 percent) in which multiple referrals first were used. Multiple referrals also comprise a significant portion of the workload of nearly every House committee. In the 102d Congress, for example, some committees shared more measures with other committees than they considered alone: Agriculture (52 percent); Government Operations (61 percent); Intelligence (85 percent); Rules (61 percent); and Science, Space, and Technology (66 percent).
The Speaker has wide latitude in determining how measures are to be referred, and his decisions and actions over the years have shaped current multiple referral practices. For example, under a 1977 rule change affecting sequential referrals, the Speaker routinely requires secondary committees to report by a fixed time. This lessens delay and precludes one committee in the sequence from killing a bill. Time limits for joint referrals are rare, although in 1983 the Speaker announced that he could designate a primary committee and impose time limits on other committees once the primary one had reported. At times, too, the decision to sequentially refer a measure is made sometime after the initial referral. In some cases sequential referrals are made at the written or informal request of committees themselves. In addition, since 1981 referrals also have been made on the text of reported measures to committees affected by the amendments of the reporting committee.
Whereas four of five multiply referred measures are referred to only two committees, some are referred to a half dozen or more. In turn, each committee might refer a bill to two or more of its subcommittees, thus requiring the cooperation and coordination of large numbers of panels. Party leaders and the Rules Committee usually have the difficult task of integrating the work of numerous panels to ready multiply referred measures for floor action. Due to their complexity, multiply referred measures are somewhat less likely than singly referred bills to be reported and enacted, and are more likely to come to the floor under restrictive procedures.
Ad Hoc Mechanisms
A number of ad hoc mechanisms have been used as a substitute for the more formal committee process. Over the past 15 years, the House and Senate have created leadership task forces of one or both parties, and the House has used ad hoc committees for pressing issues, including some that cut across committee jurisdictions. Members of such entities generally are appointed by the party leaders from the appropriate committees of expertise, allowing different perspectives to be brought to bear on a problem. Committee and party leaders often have considerable influence in shaping the deliberations and outcomes of ad hoc panels.
In the House the Speaker may refer measures to special ad hoc committees appointed by the Speaker, with the approval of the House, from the members of the committees of jurisdiction. The Speaker exercised this authority twice in the 1970s to handle important matters that overlapped committee jurisdictions; it has not been used subsequently. In the first instance, he created an Ad Hoc Select Committee on the Outer Continental Shelf, which included members of the Committees on Natural Resources, Judiciary, and Merchant Marine and Fisheries. In the second instance, he established an Ad Hoc Committee on Energy to consider and report to the House on President Carter's energy package. In this case the committees with energy jurisdiction first handled their respective pieces, then the ad hoc committee packaged them and reported to the Chamber. The Senate Majority Leader does not possess similar authority to create ad hoc committees of the Senate.
In both Chambers leaders have appointed task forces to assist with formulating and passing legislation. Unlike ad hoc committees, House task forces members may be appointed without House approval, need not be drawn from the committees of jurisdiction, and may be appointed by leaders other than the Speaker. Sometimes leaders of only one party appoint a task force to establish a party position on issues and to facilitate passage of the party's agenda. Senate Democrats, for example, have used task forces on issues ranging from contra aid to government ethics to rural development issues. In other cases, bipartisan task forces are appointed by the joint leadership to address issues of concern to both parties. For example, the House has used bipartisan task forces on issues including campaign finance, ethics, and congressional reform. In the 102d Congress the Senate used a bipartisan task force to determine the appropriate bounds of constituent service.
The House Democratic Caucus recently adopted a new rule to assure that task force actions are reviewed by the committees of expertise. The rule states that the standing committee(s) of jurisdiction shall have at least five legislative days to consider, review, and report on any legislative measure developed by any ad hoc Task Force appointed or designated by the Speaker. The change was designed to address committee concerns about being circumvented, utilize the expertise of committees, and increase the chances of passing task force measures on the floor.
Committees have much discretion in determining procedures for considering measures and for other activities although they must comply with Chamber rules, notably House Rule XI and Senate Rule XXVI. These rules aim to incorporate many provisions of the 1946 and 1970 Reorganization Acts designed to standardize committee procedures. In practice committee procedures vary substantially between the Chambers, among committees within a Chamber, and on a particular committee depending on the issue at hand. Although subcommittees generally are subject to the rules of their parent committees, subcommittee leaders usually have latitude to adapt procedures to their specific circumstances. Each committee adopts and publishes in the Congressional Record its rules of procedure, as directed by the 1970 Act, detailing its handling of legislation, the authority of subcommittees, staff arrangements and other issues.
Subcommittees in the House consistently play a major role in formulating legislation, while their role in the Senate is more varied. This difference stems in part from the Chambers' different sizes and from the greater reliance of Representatives on panels for opportunities to influence legislation. Unlike their Senate counterparts, House subcommittees have written jurisdictions and committee chairmen must refer legislation accordingly, and they are guaranteed independent staff and budgets. Typically House subcommittees hold hearings as well as initial markups of legislation, while in the Senate markups often occur at the full committee level only. Much of the authority of House subcommittees originated with the so-called Subcommittee Bill of Rights of 1973.
The ``sunshine'' reforms of the 1970s opened committee sessions to the public. Today committees must announce the date, place, and subject of hearings at least one week in advance; keep records of committee actions and make them available to the public; publish results of roll call votes on reported measures; and may broadcast sessions by radio or television. Further, committee sessions, both meetings and hearings, must be open to the public unless closed by majority vote. The 1970 Act first provided for open committee sessions; these provisions were later incorporated into Chamber rules. Although committee sessions are overwhelmingly open, key committees have closed sessions to consider important matters including national security issues and tax and appropriations measures.
Both Chambers operate computerized scheduling services to aid committees in scheduling sessions with a minimum of conflict. Nevertheless, committee sessions often overlap and Members have difficulty attending and participating in all committee business. Thus, committees have adopted certain procedures in an effort to accommodate the Members' busy schedules. Both Chambers allow one-third of a committee's members to conduct business in most areas. Further, both Chambers allow smaller quorums for hearings; since 1955 House committees have been able to conduct hearings with a minimum of two members, while there is no floor for Senate panels. However, for important actions including closing committee sessions, reporting measures, and, for the House, authorizing and issuing subpoenas, the Chambers require a majority of committee members. Both Chambers also permit a committee to report measures without a majority of committee members present at the same time; these ``rolling quorums'' were first authorized by the House in 1993, but have long been the practice in the Senate.
To accommodate the demands on Members' schedules, both Chambers allow committee Members to vote by proxy under prescribed guidelines. The 1970 Act comprehensively addressed proxy voting for the first time; previously, the individual practices or guidelines of each committee regulated use of proxies. For the House, the Act prohibited proxies unless committees' rules specifically allowed them, in which case they were allowed only for a specific measure or matter. The Bolling Committee reform measure prohibited all proxy voting, effective January 3, 1975. However, the House overturned the ban less than 2 weeks later when it agreed to its rules for the 94th Congress (1975-1976), simultaneously permitting for the first time general proxies for procedural matters.
The 1970 Act modestly restrained the use of proxies in the Senate. It barred proxy voting on reporting legislation only if specifically stated in a committee's rules. Thus, each committee has the discretion to allow or ban voting by proxy; several committees limit their use in part to increase participation in committee deliberations.
House committees are required to file written reports accompanying bills out of committee, but often days or weeks elapse between the time a measure is ordered reported and the time the report is filed. By contrast, the Senate does not require legislative reports on measures. While Senate committees often file reports nevertheless, in many cases no report is filed to expedite consideration of the underlying measure. Even though the reports themselves are optional in the Senate, both Chambers require legislative reports to contain certain impact statements and other items such as a cost estimate and a comparison of existing law and the measure proposing to change it. In addition, the House requires an inflationary impact statement while the Senate requires regulatory and paperwork impact statements. Impact statements in committee reports often are perfunctory despite the intent that they be detailed and analytical, and in many cases the requirements are waived altogether.
14 ``The Committee System,'' in Congressional Quarterly's Guide to Congress, 4th ed., (Washington, DC.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1991), pp. 453 and 469.