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About the Committee System | Historical Overview

The United States Constitution did not mention nor provide for committees in Congress, but both the House of Representatives and the Senate utilized them beginning with the very first Congress. Prior to 1816, the Senate relied on temporary select committees, the first of which was appointed on April 7, 1789, to draw up Senate rules of procedure. In the first decade of the 19th century, the Senate had only four standing, or permanent, committees, which were responsible for “housekeeping” tasks: two joint committees with the House (on enrolled bills and the Library of Congress), a committee on engrossed bills, and the Committee to Audit and Control the Contingent Expenses of the Senate.

During the era of select, or temporary, committees, the Senate first met to discuss legislation as a “Committee of the Whole,” a parliamentary device that relaxed the rules of the Senate and facilitated debate on legislation. After arriving at the broad objectives of proposed legislation, the Senate then appointed a committee to transform the ideas into specific bill text. In the 1790s, many select committees also were appointed to consider bills already passed by the House. For the most part, these early Senate committees consisted of three members for routine business and five members for more complex issues. The members of the committees were selected by ballot of the full Senate, with the member receiving the most votes designated as the chair. Once the committee returned a draft bill to the full Senate, often within a matter of weeks, that committee would be dissolved. By the first decade of the 19th century, the Senate referred legislation to 100 or more of these temporary committees each Congress.

One result of this temporary committee system was that it concentrated committee work in the hands of a small group of senators. During the First Congress (1789–1791) for example, Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut served on 22 committees in the first session and 36 committees in the second session, while other senators typically served on about 11 committees in a session, with some serving on only one or even no committees. In the first session of the Ninth Congress (1805–1806), eight senators—a quarter of the total membership—held over 70 percent of committee assignments and served as committee chairs. Senators with expertise in a particular subject were frequently elected to relevant committees. In the 1790s, 68 seats on committees dealing with treaties were filled by only 24 senators.

During the first decades of the 19th century, the Senate did create some semi-permanent legislative committees that remained active throughout a session. In 1806, concerned with the increasing amount of time consumed in electing dozens of temporary committees each session, the Senate adopted a rule to allow legislation to be referred to already created select committees that were dealing with similar topics. In addition, the Senate began dividing the president’s annual message (later termed the State of the Union Address) into sections by subject matter and referring each section to a different select committee. These committees, tasked with reporting relevant bills to the full Senate, did not always disband but rather continued in operation throughout the session.

During the War of 1812, a surge in legislative business dealing with naval and military affairs, as well as commerce and claims against the federal government, led to a rise in the number of select committees. The Senate created 250 select committees during the 12th Congress (1811–1813). In response to this growing need for committee action, the Senate decided to establish a system of permanent standing committees. The House likely served as a model, as it had created a number of standing committees between 1789 and 1815 and established additional standing committees in early 1816 to better manage government expenditures and oversight of the executive branch’s conduct of the war.

At the start of the second session of the 14th Congress in December 1816, rather than approve the usual motion to divide the president’s message among select committees, the Senate approved the creation of 11 permanent standing committees: Foreign Relations, Finance, Commerce and Manufactures, Military Affairs, Militia, Naval Affairs, Public Lands, Claims, Judiciary, Post Offices and Post Roads, and Pensions. Five members were appointed to each committee, with the exception of Commerce and Judiciary, each of which began with four members.

The move to a system of standing committees dramatically recast the legislative process in the Senate. Rather than the full Senate reaching agreement on legislation and enlisting a select committee to perfect it, bills introduced to the Senate were immediately referred to standing committees for first consideration. The standing committees thus took the lead in determining what legislation the Senate would consider. Reliance on select committees quickly ceased, with almost 90 percent of legislation being handled by the standing committees during that first session in which they were established.

The appointment of standing committees also permitted the Senate to assign long-term studies and investigations to those panels, in addition to regular legislative duties. For instance, the Commerce Committee's first assignments consisted largely of compiling statistical reports and conducting investigations required by the Senate on harbor improvements, foreign trade, canal construction, and shipping regulations. Standing committees also spent much of their time handling presidential nominations and petitions from citizens.

The procedure for assigning committee seats underwent frequent changes in the first decades of the standing committee system. Initially, at the start of each session the full Senate cast ballots to elect chairs and establish membership for each committee. To rid itself of this laborious process, in 1823 the Senate placed responsibility for assigning committee seats with the presiding officer, either the vice president or the president pro tempore. In 1825, when Vice President John C. Calhoun used the power to stack the committees with opponents of president John Quincy Adams, the Senate reverted to casting ballots. In 1828 the Senate gave this responsibility to the president pro tempore. A few years later, in 1833, the Senate re-adopted the rule making assignments by ballot, but in the years that followed the Senate frequently waived the balloting rule to allow the presiding officer to determine the slate of committee memberships.

Underlying these shifts in the method of assignments was the emergence of the Democratic and Whig Parties. Prior to 1846, the extent to which the majority party controlled committees fluctuated. The vagaries of secret balloting, slim margins between the parties, and weak party organization meant that sometimes members of the minority party could be elected as chairs or even hold more seats on a committee. In 1833, for example, the majority Whigs and minority Democrats chaired about an equal number of committees. Beginning with the second session of the next Congress, however, the Democrats, with a slim majority, took effective control of the committees, chairing and holding a majority on most committees. The Whigs did the same when they took back the majority in 1841.

Beginning in 1846, Senate committee assignments were made by approving lists submitted by the two party conferences. With few exceptions, following creation of the Republican Party in the 1850s, the two parties carried this method forward into the late 19th century while agreeing to divide committee seats according to the balance of power in the full Senate. With control of committee chairs and membership resting with the party conferences, each conference adopted its own rules to govern the distribution of assignments. Beginning in the late 19th century, seniority within the party became the most important consideration in who chaired committees. When members attained a seat on a committee, typically they kept it until they left the Senate or chose to give it up. If they became the committee’s longest serving member, they usually became chair when their party was in the majority.

With members eager to chair a committee—partly to take advantage of the office space and staff assistance such a position provided—the number of committees continued to rise into the early 20th century. Between 1863 and 1898, the number of committees more than doubled, from 22 to 49. By 1914 the Senate was home to 74 standing committees, many of which never considered a bill. There were so many committees by 1920 that some senators of the minority party began chairing committees again. In 1921, as part of the party’s commitment to reducing government spending, the Republican majority abolished 41 committees.

The expansion of federal government activity during the Great Depression and World War II led to another reform of the committee system. In an effort to modernize and streamline congressional operations, the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act further reduced the number of committees from 33 to 15, limited the number of seats on each committee, and redefined jurisdictions. The act also increased the capacity of committees to provide oversight of executive agencies and investigate policy issues by providing for non-partisan, professional staff. Previously, committees had to rely primarily on executive branch agencies and advocacy groups for substantive policy information. Increases in staff also contributed to committees’ ability to conduct far-reaching investigations of government operations and critical social and economic problems facing the country.

In the years following World War II, committees remained essential to the operation of the Senate, but by the early 1960s some senators were questioning the efficiency and equity of the system. While the Senate had created only a few new standing committees, the number of subcommittees had proliferated to address new policy issues. With the addition of several temporary special and select committees, the Senate supported a total of 151 committees and subcommittees in 1963. Senators served on an average of 17 committees or subcommittees, prompting many to complain that committee schedules often conflicted with each other and with activity on the Senate floor. While some committees and subcommittees were overworked, others had few responsibilities. The expansion and complexity of legislation also led to jurisdictional fights among committees.

By this time, a group of junior senators also began to challenge the power of the seniority system and the extraordinary power of long-serving committee chairs. The reduction in standing committees in 1946 resulted in a smaller number of committee chairs exercising power over a broader range of policy areas. These senior senators exerted tight control over their committees, setting schedules, establishing agendas, and controlling committee funds and staff. Junior senators in both the Democratic and Republican Parties protested the outsized power of the committee chairs, many of whom were Southern conservatives. Republican senators, in the minority through the 1960s and 1970s, also complained that they did not receive an equitable share of staff resources. Senators concerned about secrecy in government in the wake of the Watergate scandal pressed for more committee business to be conducted in the open.

During the 1970s, the Senate adopted numerous reforms to the committee system. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 created rules to empower all committee members, such as allowing a majority of members to call a meeting without the chair’s approval. The act addressed demands for greater transparency by requiring committees to publish their rules and make most meetings open to the public. (Executive sessions dealing with issues such as national security remained closed.) The Senate adopted new provisions to equalize committee assignments by limiting the number of committees and subcommittees that each senator could serve on, thereby opening up important committee slots for other senators. Beginning in 1975, the Senate passed resolutions to make committee staffing more equitable. These reforms included funds for every senator to hire additional professional committee staff, and imposed a majority/minority professional staffing ratio of 2/3 for the majority and 1/3 for the minority. In 1978 the Senate adopted many of the recommendations of the Temporary Select Committee to Study the Senate Committee System, including the first major reorganization of committees and their jurisdictions since 1946, most of which remain in place today.

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