A congressman once observed that "Congress is a collection of committees that come together in a chamber periodically to approve one another's actions." That statement correctly identifies the standing and permanent committees that are the nerve centers of the U.S. Congress. In a recent two-year session of Congress, for example, members proposed a total of 11,602 bills in the House and 4,080 in the Senate. For each of these bills, the committees responsible had to study, weigh arguments for and against, hear witnesses and debate changes, before the bills ever reached the House or Senate floors. Out of almost 15,000 measures introduced, only 664 -- fewer than six percent -- were enacted into law.
The Constitution does not specifically call for congressional committees. As the nation grew, however, so did the need for investigating pending legislation more thoroughly. The committee system began in 1789, when House members found themselves bogged down in endless discussions of proposed new laws. The first committees dealt with Revolutionary War claims, post roads and territories, and trade with other countries. Throughout the years, committees have formed and disbanded in response to political, social and economic changes. For example, there is no longer any need for a Revolutionary War claims committee, but both houses of Congress have a Veterans' Affairs committee.
Today, there are 22 standing committees in the House and 16 in the Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both houses: Library of Congress, printing, taxation and economics. In addition, each house can name special, or select, committees to study specific problems. Because of an increase in workload, the standing committees have also spawned some 300 subcommittees. Almost 25,000 persons help with research, information-gathering and analyses of problems and programs in Congress. Recently, during one week of hearings, committee and subcommittee members discussed topics ranging from financing of television broadcasting to the safety of nuclear plants to international commodity agreements.
And what do all these "little legislatures" actually do? After all the facts are gathered, the committee decides whether to report a new bill favorably or with a recommendation that it be passed with amendments. Sometimes, the bill will be set aside, or tabled, which effectively ends its consideration. When bills are reported out of committee and passed by the full House or Senate, however, another committee goes into action, ironing out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the same bill. This "conference committee," consisting of members of both houses, completes a bill to all members' satisfaction, then sends it to the House and Senate floors for final discussion and a vote. If passed, the bill goes to the president for his signature.
Congressional committees are vital because they do the nuts-and-bolts job of weighing the proposals, hammering them into shape or killing them completely. They continue to play a large part in the preparation and consideration of laws that will help shape the United States in its third century.