For its first quarter-century, the Senate tried to operate without permanent legislative committees. From 1789 until December 1816, the Senate relied on three-to-five-member temporary—or “select”—committees to sift and refine legislative proposals. A late eighteenth-century guidebook to “how a bill becomes a law” would have explained the process in three steps. First, the full Senate met to discuss the broad objectives of a proposed bill. Next, members elected a temporary committee to convert the general ideas expressed during that floor discussion into specific bill text. The senator who received the most votes automatically became chairman. This system ensured that committees would consist only of those who basically supported the proposed legislation and that activist members would have more committee assignments than those who were less engaged in the legislative process. In the third step, after the committee sent its recommendations to the full Senate, it went out of existence.
In 1806, concerned over the increasing amounts of time consumed in electing dozens of temporary committees each session, the Senate began to send new legislation to previously appointed select committees that had dealt with similar topics. Soon, the Senate also began dividing the president’s annual State of the Union message into sections by subject matter and referring each section to a different select committee.
The emergency conditions of the War of 1812 accelerated the transition from temporary to permanent committees by highlighting the importance of legislative continuity and expertise. In December 1815, at the start of a new Congress and with the war ended, the Senate appointed the usual select committees to consider the president's annual message, but, when those panels completed that task, the presiding officer assigned them bills on related subjects, thereby keeping them in operation. During that session, however, the Senate also appointed nearly 100 additional temporary committees. Once again the upper house was spending excessive amounts of time voting on committee members.
On December 10, 1816, the Senate took the final step and formally converted 11 major select panels into permanent “standing” committees. This action ensured that those committees, each with five members, would be available not only to handle immediate legislative proposals, but also to deal with ongoing problems and to provide oversight of executive branch operations.
(Photo: Members of the Foreign Relations Committee meet, ca. 1970. Senate Historical Office)
U.S. Congress. Senate. The Senate, 1789-1989, Vol. 2, by Robert C. Byrd. 100th Cong., 1st sess., 1991. S. Doc.100-20.