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The Congressional Committee System

The Debate Before the Debate

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In a typical session of Congress, well over 10,000 pieces of legislation are introduced for consideration. "Legislation", when used as a verb, means the consideration and enactment of laws. In practice, many will be considered, few will be enacted. During the 105th Congress, for example, 13,882 pieces of legislation were introduced. Out of all of those, only 354 (2.6%) ended up getting a presidential autograph to become enacted laws. What happened to all the rest? Some were voted down, some got vetoed, but the vast majority died in the intricate system of Congressional Committees.

Before any bill is even debated by the full membership of the House or Senate, it must first be considered and approved by the appropriate House committee or subcommittee, or Senate committee or subcommittee. Both House and Senate may also appoint special select committees to consider bills relating to specific issues.

How Bills are Assigned to Committees
Depending on its subject and content, each proposed bill is sent to one or more related committees. For example, a bill introduced in the House allocating federal funds for agricultural research might be sent to the Agriculture, Appropriations, and Budget Committees, plus others as deemed appropriate by the Speaker of the House.

Perhaps the busiest committee in Federal Government, the House Ways & Means Committee must consider every bill introduced in the House that in any way deals with federal revenue. In fact, almost two-thirds of the entire annual Federal Budget requires the approval of Ways and Means.

Political Makeup of Committees
While all committees have members from both the Democratic and Republican parties, the distribution is almost never equal. Generally, the majority party sets the proportion of minority members to majority members. However the exact method by which committee membership is determined is extremely complicated. For a more detailed explanation, try reading “Introduction and Reference to Committee,” from the Library of Congress.

Considering the number of bills and resolutions proposed, the number of committees, and the ever-present influence of party-partisan politics, it's pretty amazing that any bills ever makes it all the way to the President's desk. Maybe, it's a case of survival of the fittest. After all, the very purpose of our Congressional committee system is to make sure that only "good" laws are enacted. Does it work? Not all the time. Some good laws don't make it, while some bad laws do. Yet, without the committee system, or something like it, we could wake up to, "Good morning America! Here are your 13,882 new laws for the year."

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