committee, one or more persons appointed or elected to consider, report on, or take action on a particular matter. Because of the advantages of a division of labor, legislative committees of various kinds have assumed much of the work of legislatures in many nations. Standing committees are appointed in both houses of the U.S. Congress at the beginning of every session to deal with bills in the different specific classes. Important congressional committees include ways and means; appropriations; commerce; armed services; foreign relations; and judiciary. The number, but not the scope, of the committees was much reduced in 1946. Since then there has been a large increase in the number of subcommittees, which have become steadily more important.
Members of committees are in effect elected by caucuses of the two major parties in Congress; the majority party is given the chairmanship and majority on each committee, and chairmanships, as well as membership on important committees, are influenced by seniority, but seniority is no longer the sole deciding factor and others may override it. The presiding officer of either house may appoint special committees, including those of investigation, which have the power to summon witnesses and compel the submission of evidence. The presiding officers also appoint committees of conference to obtain agreement between the two houses on the content of bills of the same general character. The U.S. legislative committee system conducts most congressional business through its powers of scrutiny and investigation of government departments.
In France the constitution of the Fifth Republic permits each legislative chamber to have no more than six standing committees. Because these committees are large, unofficial committees have formed that do much of the real work of examining bills. As in the U.S. government, these committees are quite powerful because of their ability to delay legislation. In Great Britain devices such as committees of the whole are used in the consideration of money bills and there are large standing committees of the House of Commons, but committees have not been very important in the British legislature. Recently attempts have been made to form specialized committees.
See L. A. Froman, The Congressional Process (1967); G. Goodwin, Jr., The Little Legislatures (1970); Congressional Quarterly, Guide to Congress (3d ed. 1982).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.