The committee assignment process in the Senate is guided by Senate rules as well as party rules and practices.
Senators are formally elected to standing committees by the entire membership of the Senate, but in practice each party conference is largely responsible for determining which of its members will sit on each committee. Party conferences appoint a "committee on committees" or a “steering committee” to make committee assignments, considering such qualifications as seniority, areas of expertise, and relevance of committee jurisdiction to a senator’s state. In both conferences, the floor leader has authority to make some committee assignments, which can provide the leader with a method of promoting party discipline through the granting or withholding of desired assignments. The number of seats a party holds in the Senate determines its share of seats on each committee.
Senate rules divide committees into three categories based on their importance: Class A, Class B, and Class C. Each senator may serve on no more than two Class A committees and one Class B committee, unless granted special permission. There are no limits to service on Class C committees.
Since the 1950s, Senate and party rules have gradually changed to distribute coveted committee seats more broadly throughout each party conference. Seniority still matters, however, and the majority party member with the greatest seniority on a particular committee traditionally serves as chair. Practices also vary between the two parties. In 1995 the Republican conference changed its rules to allow senators on individual committees to vote by secret ballot for their committee's chair, irrespective of seniority. Republicans have also established a six-year term limit on the service of chairs or, when in the minority, its ranking members. Both party conferences provide that when a state is represented by two senators of the same party, the two may not serve together on the same committee, though that rule can be waived by the members of the party.
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