Are congressional committees non-partisan


One of the main features of Congress is the predominant role of the committees in its process. The current meaning of the committees developed over time; it was not constitutionally intended, as committees are not mentioned in the constitution.

There are currently 17 standing committees in the Senate and 19 in the House of Representatives. Each committee specializes in a specific legislative area: foreign affairs, defense, banking, agriculture, trade, licensing, to name a few. Almost every bill tabled in a chamber is sent to a committee for investigation and recommendation. The committee may approve, revise, reject, or ignore any matter referred to it. It is almost impossible for a bill to go before the House or Senate without the approval of a committee. In the House of Representatives, a petition must be signed to remove a bill from the committee in the boardroom of 218 MPs; a majority of the members is required in the Senate. In practice, such dismissal requests rarely receive the necessary support.

The majority party in each chamber controls the committee procedure. Committee chairmen are elected by the parliamentary group or a designated group of party members. Minority parties are represented in the committees in proportion to their strength in each chamber.

Bills can be introduced in a number of ways. Some are drawn up by standing committees, some by special committees set up to deal with specific legislative issues, and some can be introduced by the president or other representatives of the executive branch. Citizens and organizations outside of Congress can propose bills to members, and Senators and MPs themselves can initiate bills. Once introduced, the bills are sent to the committees-designate, which in most cases organize a series of public hearings to give those who support or oppose the bill the opportunity to express their views. The consultation process, which can span weeks or months, opens the legislative process to public participation.

One advantage of the committee system is that it enables members of Congress and their staff to gain considerable experience in various legislative areas. In the early years of the republic, when the population was still low and the duties of the federal government were narrowly defined, such expertise was not of great importance. Each MP was a generalist and had knowledge of all areas of interest. The complexity of life today requires expertise, which means that elected representatives often learn about one or two policy areas.

When a committee has voted in favor of a draft, the legislative proposal is forwarded for debate. In the Senate, the rules allow for practically unlimited debate. In the House of Representatives, the rule committee usually sets limits due to the large number of MPs. At the end of the debate, the members either vote for, against, or let the bill sit - which means deferring and therefore rejecting it - or send it back to committee. A law passed by one chamber is forwarded to the other chamber for further processing. If the bill is changed by the second chamber, a mediation committee composed of both chambers is set up to find a compromise.

After it has been passed by both chambers, the law is submitted to the President, who has to give his or her opinion so that it can come into force. The president has the choice of either signing the law - then it becomes law - or vetoing it. A law rejected by the President must be approved by a two-thirds majority of both chambers in order to come into force.

The President can also refuse to sign a law or to veto. In this case, the law comes into force ten days (excluding Sundays) after submission without his signature. The only exception to this rule applies if Congress adjourns after the bill has been presented and before the ten-day period has expired; the president's refusal to act then negates the law - a practice known as pocket veto.


One of the most significant non-legislative functions of Congress is investigative powers. This responsibility is usually given to the committees - either a standing committee, a special committee set up for a specific purpose or joint committees with members from both chambers. Investigations are carried out to obtain information about future laws, to check the effectiveness of laws that have already been passed or to review the qualifications and performance of employees and officials from other powers and, in rare cases, to do the preparatory work for impeachment proceedings. Often the committees turn to outside experts to conduct investigative hearings and conduct detailed investigations.

Investigative competence has important ramifications. One is the authority to publish the investigation and its results. Most of the committee hearings are public and receive extensive coverage in the mass media. Congressional investigations are therefore an important tool for lawmakers to inform the public and arouse public interest in national issues. Congressional committees also have the power to compel unwilling witnesses to testify, to accuse witnesses who refuse to testify of contempt of Congress, and to witnesses who give false testimony to perjury.


In contrast to the parliamentary systems in Europe, the behavior of the American legislature has little to do with central party discipline. Each of the major American political parties is a coalition of local and federal organizations that together form a national party - Republican or Democratic - for the presidential campaign every four years. Therefore, members of Congress owe their position to their local and state constituencies and not to the national party leadership or their counterparts in Congress. As a result, the legislative behavior of MPs and senators is more individualistic or idiosyncratic. It reflects the wide variety of constituencies represented and the freedom that comes from building a loyal personal electorate.

The congress is therefore a collegial and not a hierarchical body. Power is not exercised from the top down, as in a company, but in virtually every direction. There is minimal centralized authority as the opportunities to punish or reward are slim. Congress policy is made through changeable coalitions, which can differ depending on the topic. Sometimes when opposing pressures are exerted - from the White House and major economic or ethnic groups - lawmakers use the rules of procedure to delay a decision and thereby avoid angering influential circles. A matter can be adjourned if the committee concerned has not held adequate public hearings. Congress may also instruct an agency to prepare a detailed report before discussing a subject. Or each chamber can suspend a measure and thus effectively reject it without ever having passed a judgment on the matter.

There are informal or unwritten standards of conduct that often determine the roles and influence of a particular member. "Insiders", MPs, and senators who focus on their legislative duties can have more power in the halls of Congress than "outsiders" who gain recognition by speaking publicly on national issues. Members are expected to behave politely towards their colleagues. Personal attacks are to be avoided, regardless of how unacceptable one may find the opponent's politics to be. Members are also expected to specialize in some policy areas and not claim to be competent in all legislative areas. Those who adhere to these unofficial rules are more likely to be elected to respected committees, or at least to committees that are of interest to a significant number of their own voters.


In the dictionary, "oversight" is defined as "careful supervision," and this practice has proven to be one of the most powerful ways in which Congress can influence the executive branch. The oversight powers of Congress prevent waste and fraud, protect civil rights and personal freedoms, guarantee compliance by the executive branch, gather information for law-making and educating the public, and evaluate executive performance. They extend to ministries, government agencies, regulators and the presidency.

The supervisory role of the Congress takes several forms:
- committee inquiries and hearings,
- formal consultations with and reports from the President,
- Advising the Senate and approving contracts and nominations by the President,
- House impeachment procedures and the corresponding procedures in the Senate,
- Procedure in the House of Representatives and in the Senate in accordance with the 25th Amendment to the Constitution if the President cannot exercise his office or the office of Vice-President is not occupied,
- informal meetings between representatives of the legislative and executive branches,
- Congress membership in government commissions,
Investigations by congressional committees and subordinate agencies such as the Congressional Budget Authority, the Federal Audit Office, and the Technology Assessment Authority - all organs of Congress.

Because of the oversight function of Congress, incumbents have been forced to resign, policies have been revised, and new legal controls have been placed on the executive. In 1949, special Senate investigative committees exposed corrupt behavior by high-ranking officials in the Truman government. As a result, certain authorities were reorganized and a special White House commission on corruption in the government was set up.

Televised hearings of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in the late 1960s helped mobilize against the Vietnam War. The 1973 Congressional Watergate investigation revealed that White House officials were illegally using their positions to their political gain. The House Judiciary Committee's impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon the following year ended his presidency. Investigations by special committees in 1975 and 1976 revealed serious violations by the intelligence services and encouraged the drafting of new laws to control intelligence activities.

In 1983, a Congressional investigation into a proposal to merge the border control functions of customs and immigration raised questions about the powers of the executive branch to make such changes without new legislation. In 1987, violations of the law in the executive branch's secret arms sales to Iran and the transfer of the profits from arms sales to the Contras, anti-government forces in Nicaragua, were exposed. The findings of Congress led to legislative proposals designed to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

A bipartisan Congressional investigation and subsequent Senate hearings in 1996 and 1997 uncovered cases of abuse and mismanagement by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the agency responsible for collecting income tax. The Senate Finance Committee heard officials from the IRS who testified that the pressure to collect unpaid taxes was so great that taxpayers were being harassed. Citizens were also heard testifying that they were falsely accused and aggressively prosecuted by the IRS for failing to pay their taxes. In 1998 the IRS passed reform laws that created an independent board of directors and improved taxpayer protection. This includes shifting the burden of proof in tax disputes from the taxpayer to the IRS.

The oversight powers of Congress have proven time and again to be a critical oversight function in overseeing the presidency and overseeing politics.


Congressional committees are not specifically provided for in the Constitution. As the nation grew, so did the need for careful study of pending legislative proposals.

The committee system came into being in 1789 when members of the House of Representatives found themselves blocked by endless discussions about new legislative proposals. The first committees dealt with demands from the War of Independence, postal routes and areas as well as trade with other countries. Over the years, committees have been formed and disbanded in response to political, social and economic changes. A War of Independence Claims Committee, for example, is no longer needed, although both chambers of Congress have a committee for the affairs of former combatants.

In the 106th Congress (1999-2000) there were 19 standing committees in the House of Representatives and 17 in the Senate. There were also four joint standing committees with members of both chambers: Library of Congress, Printing, Taxation and Economics. In addition, each chamber can set up special committees to investigate specific problems. In addition, due to the increasing workload, the standing committees have created around 150 sub-committees.

And what exactly do all these committees do? The relevant committee must carefully review every bill - the bill that goes to Congress. The committee usually holds hearings where experts testify. These can be members of Congress not represented on the committee, representatives of the executive branch, representatives of private sector organizations and individual citizens.

After all the facts have been gathered, the committee decides whether to report positively on the legislative proposal or to recommend changes. Sometimes the original is left alone, which means that it is practically rejected. However, when a bill leaves the committee and is passed by the entire House or Senate, another committee comes into play to resolve inconsistencies between the different versions of the House and Senate of the same bill. This "mediation committee" is composed of members from both chambers, completes the draft to the satisfaction of all members of Congress and then submits it to the House of Representatives and the Senate for final discussion and vote. If the bill is passed, it will be presented to the President for signature.


House of Representatives

Armed forces
Banking and financial services
Education and working people
State reform and control
Administration of the House of Representatives
International Relations
Rules of Procedure
Middle class
Codes of conduct for MPs
Transportation and Infrastructure
Affairs of former combatants
Budgetary issues


Agriculture, Food and Forestry
Armed forces
Commerce, Science and Transportation
Energy and natural resources
Environment and public works
Foreign Affairs Committee
State Committee of Inquiry
Health, education, work and retirement
Native American Affairs
Rules of Procedure and Administration
Middle class
Affairs of former combatants

Original text: Chapter 4: The Legislative Branch: The Reach of Congress
"from the book" Outline of the U.S.Government "-" The American System of Government "- published by the Department of State's International Information Programs (published on America Service, June 14, 2005) .