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About the Senate Committee System

Due to the high volume and complexity of its work, the Senate divides its tasks among 20 permanent committees, four joint committees, and occasionally temporary committees. The Senate has established guidelines for committees, but each committee adopts its own rules and procedures.

Standing committees generally have legislative jurisdiction. Subcommittees tackle specific areas of jurisdiction under the full committee, while select and joint committees generally provide oversight or deal with routine housekeeping responsibilities.

The chair of each committee and a majority of its members represent the majority party, with the chair setting the agenda for committee business. Each party assigns its own members to committees, and each committee distributes its members among its subcommittees. The Senate places limits on the number and types of panels any one senator may serve on or chair.

Each committee hires its own staff, and levels of operating funds varies from committee to committee. The majority party controls most committee staff and resources, but a portion (consistent with party division) is shared with the minority.

Bills and resolutions are referred to committees, which select items for further consideration. When considering a bill or resolution, committees typically follow this course: First, the committee asks relevant executive agencies for written comments on the measure. Second, it holds hearings to gather information and views from non-committee experts. At committee hearings, these witnesses summarize submitted statements and then respond to questions from the senators. Third, a committee meets to perfect the measure through amendments, which also allows non-committee members to influence the legislative language. Finally, when language is agreed upon, the committee sends the measure back to the full Senate for debate, usually along with a written report describing its purposes and provisions.

A committee’s influence may extend throughout the legislative process to the enactment of bills into law. A committee member, often the chair, will play an important role in managing the full Senate’s deliberation on the bill. Also, committee members will be appointed as conferees to reconcile the Senate version of a bill with the version passed by the House of Representatives. Committees also manage the confirmation or rejection of presidential nominees, consider treaties and international agreements, hold oversight hearings, and launch investigations of suspected wrongdoing.

Source:  The Committee System in the U.S. Congress, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. August 29, 1994, revised by the Senate Historical Office, March 2018.