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About the Committee System | Committee Functions

The Senate refers approximately 3,000 bills and resolutions to its committees during each two-year Congress. Committees act on only a fraction of these measures. Some of these bills and resolutions are introduced without expectation of immediate committee consideration but are designed to call attention to issues or to test the likelihood of future support. Others receive no attention by the committee because they duplicate measures already being considered.

Committees consider hundreds of bills in the course of their more than 2,000 public hearings and business meetings each Congress. Senate committees often summon to their hearings a wide range of witnesses, including members of Congress, cabinet officers and other administration officials, representatives of business and labor organizations, and other expert witnesses. At the completion of the hearing process, committees "mark up" one or more related bills, often preparing a consolidated or "clean bill."

Occasionally, individual members seek to bypass committees by objecting to a measure's committee referral, thus keeping the legislation on the floor to be considered by the full Senate. Members may also circumvent potentially hostile committees by offering whole bills as amendments to other bills at the time of their floor consideration—in the Senate, unlike the House of Representatives, amendments generally do not have to be germane to the subject of the bill being amended. In the vast majority of cases, however, members work through the committee system to get legislation passed.

Senate committees possess broad investigative powers to support their legislative mission. In addition, Senate committees are tasked with oversight of federal executive agencies. Committees hold executive officials accountable by reviewing and monitoring executive agency operations, including expenditures and implementation of programs authorized by Congress. Approximately one-quarter of all Senate committee hearings relate to oversight. In most instances, standing committees serve as the Senate's principal investigative arm, but the Senate also has entrusted this responsibility to special and select committees.

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