April 12, 2010
In our continuing effort to help members of The American Legion family in their efforts to follow and understand congressional actions, we now present a brief discussion about congressional committees.
A congressional committee is a legislative sub-organization in both chambers of the U.S. Congress that handles a specific duty, rather than the general duties of Congress. Committee membership allows members to develop specialized knowledge of the matters under their jurisdiction, often in areas which they are not experts. As "little legislatures," committees monitor on-going governmental operations, identify issues suitable for legislative review, gather and evaluate information, and recommend courses of action to their parent body. Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, once said, ""...it is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work."
The modern committee structure stems from the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (P.L. 79-601), the first and most ambitious restructuring of the standing committee system since the committee system was first developed. The 1946 law reduced the number of standing House committees from 48 to 19 and the number of standing Senate committees from 33 to 15.
Jurisdictions of all committee were codified by rules in their respective chambers, which helped consolidate or eliminate many existing committees and minimized jurisdictional conflicts.
Currently, the House has a total of 20 regular committees, one select committee and one permanent select committee. The Senate has 17 regular committees and four select committees. In addition, Congress has four joint committees - populated by members of both chambers - that address certain subjects shared by both bodies.
Each committee may have a number of subcommittees, where most of the real work of the committee system occurs. Subcommittees have an even narrower focus than the committee. Most committees are limited to the number of subcommittees that they have, thanks to P.L. 79-601. The main exceptions are the Appropriations (12 subcommittees) and the Armed Services (six in the Senate, seven in the House) committees. In addition, some committees will rename or realign the jurisdictions of their subcommittees from time to time, usually when the leadership of the chamber changes due to election results.
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee is fairly typical in its number of subcommittees. They include Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Economic Opportunity, Health, and Oversight and Investigations. However, it should be noted that the Senate Veterans' Affairs has no subcommittees.
You can find information about committees and subcommittees through THOMAS. On the main page, go to the left-hand column, then go about halfway down the page. You will see a link entitled "House of Representatives." Clicking on that link will take you to the Web site specifically for the House of Representatives. On this Web page, go to the left side of the page and you will see a link entitled, "Committees." When you click on that link, you will be taken to a page with links to all the committees for the House of Representatives. Clicking on one of those links will take you to the Web site for each of the House committees. Each committee is responsible for setting up and maintaining its own Web site, so there will be some differences in how they are set up.
For Senate committees, just below the "House of Representatives" link on the THOMAS main page is a link entitled "Senate." Clicking on that link will take you to the Senate's Web site. Near the top of the page, you will see the link for "Committees" in a red border just below the webpage title. Clicking on "Committees" will take you to a web page with a list of links to all the Senate's committees.