Due to the high volume and complexity of its work, the Senate divides its tasks among 20 committees, 68 subcommittees, and 4 joint committees. Although the Senate committee system is similar to that of the House of Representatives, it has its own guidelines, within which each committee adopts its own rules. This creates considerable variation among the panels.
Standing committees generally have legislative jurisdiction. Subcommittees handle specific areas of the committee's work. Select and joint committees generally handle oversight or housekeeping responsibilities.
The chair of each committee and a majority of its members represent the majority party. The chair primarily controls a committee's business. Each party assigns its own members to committees, and each committee distributes its members among its subcommittees. The Senate places limits on the number and types of panels any one senator may serve on and chair.
Committees receive varying levels of operating funds and employ varying numbers of aides. Each hires its own staff. The majority party controls most committee staff and resources, but a portion is shared with the minority.
Several thousand bills and resolutions are referred to committees during each 2-year Congress. Committees select a small percentage for consideration, and those not addressed often receive no further action. The bills that committees report help to set the Senate's agenda.
When a committee or subcommittee favors a measure, it usually takes four actions. First it asks relevant executive agencies for written comments on the measure. Second, it holds hearings to gather information and views from non-committee experts. At committee hearings, these witnesses summarize submitted statements and then respond to questions from the senators. Third, a committee meets to perfect the measure through amendments, and non-committee members sometimes attempt to influence the language. Fourth, when language is agreed upon, the committee sends the measure back to the full Senate, usually along with a written report describing its purposes and provisions.
A committee's influence extends to its enactment of bills into law. A committee that considers a measure will manage the full Senate's deliberation on it. Also, its members will be appointed to any conference committee created to reconcile its version of a bill with the version passed by the House of Representatives.
Other types of committees deal with the confirmation or rejection of presidential nominees. Committee hearings that focus on the implementation and investigation of programs are known as oversight hearings, whereas committee investigations examine allegations of wrongdoing.
Source: The Committee System in the U.S. Congress, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. August 29, 1994, revised by the Senate Historical Office, September 2002.