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The Constitution is entirely silent on the question of committees in Congress. It does not require the existence of any committees at all. In fact, during the first few decades of our nation’s history, there were no permanent standing committees. Those early congresses, many of which contained so many of the Framers of the Constitution, decided that the nation’s laws could be crafted without the assistance of committees.
In other words, we have not always had committees and we have not always needed them. Even when we have had committees in Congress, their power, purposes, and processes have changed dramatically over time. Committees began as weak bodies accountable to everyone in Congress, eventually became the most powerful institutions in Congress, and recently have seen their influence diminish. Understanding the history of committees’ rise and fall helps us to see what effect they have on Congress. While committees can and should play a role in helping Congress do its work, they often have perverse effects on how our representatives behave and the laws they enact.
Originally, Congress used “Select” or ad hoc committees to do its work. These committees were not permanent, but merely temporary, formed only for a single purpose. When an issue was presented to the whole House of Representatives for debate, the members would discuss it and come to agreement before sending it to a select committee. Once the select committee wrote a bill based on the agreement reached by the entire House, it would dissolve, and the bill would go to the floor of the House for further discussion and passage. In this process, the committees’ role was minimal, and serving on a committee did not give a member any additional power.
During the 1810s and 1820s, Congress saw the need to create permanent committees with settled jurisdiction. These “Standing” committees, which remain in existence today, took on more authority, including the ability to write and amend legislation. Members sought to be assigned to the committees that gave them more influence over the issues that mattered to their constituents. For instance, members from farm districts might wish to be on agricultural committees so that they could influence legislation that affected their constituents’ interests.
These standing committees, therefore, present both advantages and problems for Congress’s functioning. On the one hand, they allow for a more efficient legislative process and give Congress greater expertise on specific issues. Instead of being forced to discuss every issue as a whole body, committees allow Congress to divide into smaller units to screen legislation, managing its workload. It also allows members to specialize in certain areas through longstanding membership on committees. On the other hand, if committees have influence over legislation, and members seek committee assignments that allow them to advance their constituents’ interests, then committees can enable special interests to gain greater influence in the legislative process.
The history of committees’ rise and fall in Congress shows these advantages and disadvantages in action. During the middle part of the 19th Century, committees became so powerful that Woodrow Wilson famously wrote that “Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work.” Committees wrote most legislation, and amendments to their legislation were minimal. Once a bill reached the floor, it would be passed in largely the same form as it was written by a committee.
After the Civil War, however, strong political parties emerged to discipline these committees. Members like the Speaker of the House controlled the legislative process through the power of recognition, the power of appointment, and through controlling the rules committee which was in charge of sending bills to the floor for passage. Committees and their chairs knew that they could not pass legislation if the party leadership opposed it. The emergence of party leadership allowed the majority party to resist the influence of narrow, special interests that might dominate at the committee level.
But the party discipline of the post-Civil War period was short-lived. In the early 20th Century, Progressives succeeded in weakening the Speaker of the House, and imposed new rules that limited party leaders’ influence over legislation. In 1910 George Norris led the minority Democrats of the House in a revolt against Speaker Joe Cannon. Soon after the Speaker was stripped of his power to decide membership on House committees, and power became decentralized. As a result, committees once again emerged as the most powerful bodies in Congress. They were so powerful that their chairs gained complete control of the legislative agenda. These committee chairs were called the “barons” of Congress. Unfortunately, they refused to follow the will of Congress as a whole, and followed their own wishes instead. Congress became out of touch with the people in the middle of the 20th Century as a result of the power and autonomy of these committees.
Today, committees are weaker than they were in the middle of the last century. Both parties limit the tenure of their committee chairs, so that they do not become too powerful and independent of the whole Congress. Members of Congress receive their committee assignments from their parties, and can be removed from committees if they fail to act in the party’s interest. Committees are still very powerful, but they are now more accountable to parties than they were fifty years ago. The late-19th Century era of party dominance has not returned, but we are no longer in the era of strong, independent committees either.
This history suggests two lessons for us today. First, the rules regarding how committee members are chosen and what powers committees have to write legislation are highly important to how Congress works. If committee power is unchecked by Congress as a whole, their advantages (efficiency and expertise) and disadvantages (influence of narrow interests) will be increased. If committees are more accountable to Congress as a whole, including their party leaders, Congress will be more inefficient and have less expertise, but narrow interests will be disciplined by the national majority. Many of the problems we see in Congress today are the result of reforms to the committee process.
Second, committees provide Congress with a double-edged sword. They help Congress do its job, but they also threaten to subvert the legislative process, dividing Congress into many subunits, each of which advance a narrow, special interest rather than the common good. If they are not held accountable to the whole Congress, through rules that allow party leaders to influence committees and allow members to amend legislation after it leaves committees, they can threaten the very purpose of Congress: to make laws that reflect the sense of the majority rather than the interests of the powerful.
Joseph Postell is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. He is the author of Bureaucracy in America: The Administrative State’s Challenge to Constitutional Government. He is also the editor of Rediscovering Political Economy and Toward an American Conservatism: Constitutional Conservatism during the Progressive Era. Follow him on Twitter @JoePostell.
Samuel Postell is a Ph.D. student at the University of Dallas.