House by Committee
Although not specified in the Constitution, committees are where the substantive and legislative work of Congress takes place. Given the enormous complexity and diversity of issues that members confront each session, committees have evolved into specialized divisions of labor where members can concentrate on particular areas of expertise. As a general rule, each House member serves on two standing committees, although members of the powerful Appropriations, Rules, and Ways and Means committees serve only on those committees. Most House committees are divided into five subcommittees that focus on more specific areas.
Types of Committees
There are four primary types of committees in the House of Representatives.
Standing Committees. These are the permanent bodies of Congress where virtually all of the legislative action takes place. Standing committees are by far the most important structures in Congress. The following are the nineteen standing committees of the 108th Congress:
Banking and Financial Services
Education and the Workforce
Science and Technology
Standards of Official Conduct
Transportation and Infrastructure
Ways and Means
Select or Special Committees. These committees are temporary panels created from time to time to study or investigate a particular problem or issue. They have a narrow focus and are usually disbanded at the end of the Congressional session in which they were created. These committees produce reports, not legislation. Several years ago, the 105th Congress convened a special committee to examine the issue of aging. Congresses also employed select committees to investigate the Iran-Contra and Watergate scandals.
Joint Committees. These committees are composed of members from both the House of Representatives and Senate. Typically, they deal with administrative matters pertaining to Congress. Joint committees can be either permanent or temporary, and are most likely to produce recommendations, not legislation.
Conference Committees. These committees are also composed of House and Senate members, but they have the express purpose of standardizing the exact language of concurrent pieces of legislation that the two chambers have passed. You'll learn more about conference committees in Chapter 7.
Joining a Committee
For members of Congress, committee assignments rank among the most important aspects of their job. The Speaker of the House and the minority leader determine assignments for their respective party members in conjunction with their steering committee, which is convened for that specific purpose.
Committees vary in importance. Some committees, such as Ways and Means, Banking and Financial Services, Rules, and Budget, are considered prized appointments. Others, such as Standards of Official Conduct and House Administration, are less coveted posts. Oftentimes, committee assignments can determine the career trajectory and expertise of a member.
There are several factors that go into committee assignments. The most important is seniority — the longer a member has served in Congress, the greater his or her chances of receiving a plum assignment. Some members receive committee assignments based on particular knowledge or expertise, while others are assigned based on the needs of his or her district (midwestern members often serve on the Agriculture Committee, for instance). It's not unusual for members to receive a desired committee post as a reward for party loyalty or fundraising prowess, or for ideological reasons.
The most powerful member of any committee is the chairperson. The chair hires majority staff, appoints subcommittee members and leaders, and allocates the committee and subcommittee budgets. At one time, it was said that chairpersons dominated their committees like feudal lords, ruling with an iron fist. Recent reforms, however, have curbed their powers.
After taking power in 1994, the Republicans adopted term limits for their committee chairpersons, restricting their members to only three terms as a chairperson on a given committee. This limitation does not prohibit term-limited Republicans from serving as chairperson on another committee, and does not apply to House Democrats.