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How the Legislative Committee Process Works in Washington, D.C.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., are structured by committee. Congressional committees are charged with gathering information, evaluating the options on certain issues, and proposing solutions for the full Senate or House to consider.

To be blunt, no member of either chamber could possibly learn enough about every subject under consideration to make educated decisions about how to vote. Many (well, at least some) of these folks are really smart, but they may vote on a lot of complex legislation in any given session. That’s why the committee structure exists.

In committees, members of Congress can focus on particular subjects that they care about or have experience with. The choice of who sits on a particular committee is most often based on its importance to the legislator’s constituents or region, or on that person’s own background.

In time, the committee process allows members to become subject matter experts and, in turn, empowers them to advise the entire Congress on that particular subject.

A committee learns about the topic of certain legislation through public hearings, during meetings with stakeholders and professional lobbyists, and courtesy of mandated research entities responsible for providing nonpartisan information to members.

For example, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is responsible for providing economic data and analysis to members of Congress. And the Congressional Research Service (CRS) publishes reports on issues in order to provide ideas for legislation or help members analyze a certain issue. (The CRS also consults on procedures and helps resolve discrepancies that may arise between the House and the Senate.)

Each committee appoints a head from the majority party and a senior ranking member from the minority party. A hierarchy often emerges among the committees, especially depending on what particular interests a lawmaker has with regard to his or her constituencies, political aspirations, lobbying influences, fundraising influences, and personal passions.

A senior or ranking position within a powerful committee is a quick way for a congressperson to stand out and make a mark on the legislative agenda of the congressional session.

Committees have a lot of power, including the power to write legislation. Therefore, they are a means for individual members of Congress to build seniority, as well as personal power and influence. While certain procedures exist for bypassing committee input and directly introducing bills on the House floor, these procedures are very difficult to carry out, making committees the preferred conduit for advancing legislation.

Another function of congressional committees is to carry out the power of oversight, monitoring and investigating the agencies of the executive branch.

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