The large majority of bills that are assigned to a committee languish without receiving any consideration and are quickly forgotten. For the few bills that are acted upon, the committee chairman will usually assign it to a subcommittee for further consideration. Subcommittees are where the bulk of legislative crafting takes place.
The Importance of Hearings
If the subcommittee decides to act, the first thing it does is hold hearings. Every year, Congressional committees and subcommittees hold thousands of hearings, with some receiving more attention than others. Hearings are held for several reasons:
To explore the need for legislation
To allow members to make their point of view known
To build support and create a record for the legislation
To attract media attention to the issue
To give the chairman a forum to increase public exposure
The ranking members of the subcommittee call witnesses to testify on the pending legislation. This can include anyone from the sponsor of the bill to lobbyists, experts, other federal officials, ordinary citizens affected by the legislation, and even celebrities.
In most instances, the format doesn't vary much. Witnesses read a prepared statement, and then each member is given an allotment of time (usually five minutes) to ask the witness questions. If the subcommittee chairman is opposed to the bill but doesn't want to publicly come out against it, he may hold an endless number of hearings as a way of slowly killing it without arousing suspicion among the public.
Television star Michael J. Fox has frequently testified on Capitol Hill in support of greater funding for Parkinson's disease, an ailment from which he suffers. Other celebrity testifiers include Christopher Reeve (spinal cord paralysis), Julia Roberts (Rett Syndrome), and Mary Tyler Moore (stem cell research).
Committees and subcommittees are required by law to publish their hearing schedule a week in advance in local papers so that witnesses, the press, and the public are given appropriate time to prepare. While most hearings take place on Capitol Hill, sometimes committees conduct hearings in parts of the country where area residents will be particularly affected by the proposed legislation. It's not unusual for agriculture hearings to take place in midwestern states and for dairy-related hearings to be held in Wisconsin.
The Markup Phase
Once hearings have been completed, the bill enters the markup phase. During markup, subcommittee members debate the language of the bill, offer amendments, and vote on a final bill.
After markup, the bill is referred to the entire committee, where several things can occur. The committee may accept the recommendation, send it back to the subcommittee for further work, or conduct hearings and markups of its own. Usually, the committee accepts the findings of the subcommittee. Except for issues related to national security, committee and subcommittee markups must be conducted in public.
Public markups were part of the “sunshine” laws that resulted from a series of post-Watergate Congressional reforms. Some members of Congress contend that public scrutiny of markups has made the legislative process more difficult because most members are unwilling to negotiate bill provisions in public. As a result, many committees have “pre-markup” sessions prior to the public markups.
Once the bill has been written, the committee staff submits a report to all the members, explaining the contents of the bill. The committee report usually describes the purpose of the bill, contains the arguments for and against it, summarizes the hearings' findings, explains how the bill may impact existing law, and includes a perspective from affected executive branch agencies. According to House and Senate rules, a majority of committee members must be present for a bill to be voted out of committee.
With a growing number of bills running into the thousands of pages (and written in confusing legalese), the report has become an invaluable tool for members to evaluate a piece of legislation. The courts and regulatory agencies that have to interpret and implement the law also rely on the committee report to better understand the scope and meaning of the legislation. Committee members who oppose the final legislation are given the opportunity to file a supplemental report stating their views.