How a bill becomes a law/V. Consideration by committee

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Series: How a bill becomes a law in the U.S. Congress
Main page:
  1. The Congress
  2. Sources of legislation
  3. Forms of congressional action
  4. Introduction and referral to committee
  5. Consideration by committee
  6. Reported bills
  7. Legislative oversight by standing committees
  8. Calendars
  9. Obtaining consideration of measures
  10. Consideration and debate
  11. Congressional budget process
  12. Engrossment
  13. Final action on amended bill
  14. Enrollment
  15. Presidential action
  16. Publication


House of Representatives

One of the first actions taken by a committee is to seek the input of the relevant departments and agencies about a bill. Frequently, the billis also submitted to the General Accounting Office with a request for an official report of views on the necessity or desirability of enacting the bill into law. Normally, ample time is given for the submission of the reports and they are accorded serious consideration. However, these reports are not binding on the committee in determining whether or not to act favorably on the bill. Reports of the departments and agencies in the executive branch are submitted first to the Office of Management and Budget to determine whether they are consistent with the program of the President. Many committees adopt requiring referral of measures to the appropriate subcommittee unless the full committee votes to retain the measure at the full committee.

Committee meetings

Standing committees are required to have regular meeting days at least once a month. The chairman of the committee may also call and convene additional meetings. Three or more members of a standing committee may file with the committee a written request that the chairman call a special meeting. The request must specify the measure or matter to be considered. If the chairman does not call the requested special meeting within three calendar days after the filing of the request, to be held within seven calendar days after the filing of the request, a majority of the members of the committee may call the special meeting by filing with the committee written notice specifying the date, hour, and the measure or matter to be considered at the meeting. In the Senate, the Chair may still control the agenda of the special meeting through the power of recognition. Committee meetings may be held for various purposes including the "markup" of legislation, authorizing subpoenas, or internal budget and personnel matters.

A subpoena may be authorized and issued at a meeting by a vote of a committee or subcommittee with a majority of members present. The power to authorize and issue subpoenas also may be delegated to the chairman of the committee. A subpoena may require both testimonial and documentary evidence to be furnished to the committee. A subpoena is signed by the chairman of the committee or by a member designated by the committee.

All meetings for the transaction of business of standing committees or subcommittees, except the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, must be open to the public, except when the committee or subcommittee, in open session with a majority present, determines by record vote that all or part of the remainder of the meeting on that day shall be closed to the public. Members of the committee may authorize congressional staff and departmental representatives to be present at any meeting that has been closed to the public. Open committee meetings may be covered by the media. Permission to cover hearings and meetings is granted under detailed conditions as provided in the rules of the House.

The of the House provide that House committees may not meet during a joint session of the House and Senate or during a recess when a joint meeting of the House and Senate is in progress. Committees may meet at other times during an adjournment or recess up to the expiration of the constitutional term.

Public hearings

If the bill is of sufficient importance, the committee may set a date for public hearings. The chairman of each committee, except for the Committee on Rules, is required to make public announcement of the date, place, and subject matter of any hearing at least one week before the commencement of that hearing, unless the committee chairman with the concurrence of the ranking minority member or the committee by majority vote determines that there is good cause to begin the hearing at an earlier date. If that determination is made, the chairman must make a public announcement to that effect at the earliest possible date. Public announcements are published in the Daily Digest portion of the Congressional Record as soon as possible after an announcement is made and are often noted by the media. Personal notice of the hearing, usually in the form of a letter, is sometimes sent to relevant individuals, organizations, and government departments and agencies.

Each hearing by a committee or subcommittee, except the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is required to be open to the public except when the committee or subcommittee, in open session and with a majority present, determines by record vote that all or part of the remainder of the hearing on that day shall be closed to the public because disclosure of testimony, evidence, or other matters to be considered would endanger national security, would compromise sensitive law enforcement information, or would violate a law or a rule of the House. The committee or subcommittee may by the same procedure vote to close one subsequent day of hearing, except that the Committees on Appropriations, Armed Services, and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and subcommittees thereof, may vote to close up to five additional, consecutive days of hearings. When a quorum for taking testimony is present, a majority of the members present may close a hearing to discuss whether the evidence or testimony to be received would endanger national security or would tend to defame, degrade, or incriminate any person. A committee or subcommittee may vote to release or make public matters originally received in a closed hearing or meeting. Open committee hearings may be covered by the media. Permission to cover hearings and meetings is granted under detailed conditions as provided in the rules of the House.

Hearings on the Budget are required to be held by the Committee on Appropriations in open session within 30 days after its transmittal to Congress, except when the committee, in open session and with a quorum present, determines by record vote that the testimony to be taken at that hearing on that day may be related to a matter of national security. The committee may by the same procedure close one subsequent day of hearing.

On the day set for a public hearing in a committee or subcommittee, an official reporter is present to record the testimony. After a brief introductory statement by the chairman and often by the ranking minority member or other committee member, the first witness is called. Members or Senators who wish to be heard sometimes testify first out of courtesy and due to the limitations on their time. Cabinet officers and high-ranking government officials, as well as interested private individuals, testify either voluntarily or by subpoena.

So far as practicable, committees require that witnesses who appear before it file a written statement of their proposed testimony in advance of their appearance and limit their oral presentations to a brief summary of their arguments. In the case of a witness appearing in a nongovernmental capacity, a written statement of proposed testimony shall include a curriculum vitae and a disclosure of certain federal grants and contracts.

Minority party members of the committee are entitled to call witnesses of their own to testify on a measure during at least one additional day of a hearing.

Each member of the committee is provided only five minutes in the interrogation of each witness until each member of the committee who desires to question a witness has had an opportunity to do so. In addition, a committee may adopt a rule or motion to permit committee members to question a witness for a specified period not longer than one hour. Committee staff may also be permitted to question a witness for a specified period not longer than one hour.

A transcript of the testimony taken at a public hearing is made available for inspection in the office of the clerk of the committee. Frequently, the complete transcript is printed and distributed widely by the committee.


After hearings are completed, the subcommittee usually will consider the bill in a session that is popularly known as the "markup" session. The views of both sides are studied in detail and at the conclusion of deliberation a vote is taken to determine the action of the subcommittee. It may decide to report the bill favorably to the full committee, with or without amendment, or unfavorably, or without recommendation. The subcommittee may also suggest that the committee "table" it or postpone action indefinitely. Each member of the subcommittee, regardless of party affiliation, has one vote. Proxy voting is no longer permitted in House committees.

Final committee action

At full committee meetings, reports on bills may be made by subcommittees. Bills are read for amendment in committees by section and members may offer germane amendments. Committee amendments are only proposals to change the bill as introduced and are subject to acceptance or rejection by the House itself. A vote of committee members is taken to determine whether the full committee will report the bill favorably, adversely, or without recommendation. If the committee votes to report the bill favorably to the House, it may report the bill without amendments or may introduce and report a "clean bill". Committees may authorize the chairman to postpone votes in certain circumstances. If the committee has approved extensive amendments, the committee may decide to report the original bill with one "amendment in the nature of a substitute" consisting of all the amendments previously adopted, or may report a new bill incorporating those amendments, commonly known as a clean bill. The new bill is introduced (usually by the chairman of the committee), and, after referral back to the committee, is reported favorably to the House by the committee. A committee may table a bill or not take action on it, thereby preventing further action on a bill. This makes adverse reports or reports without recommendation to the House by a committee unusual. The House also has the ability to discharge a bill from committee. For a discussion of the motion to discharge, see Part IX.

Generally, a majority of the committee or subcommittee constitutes a quorum. A quorum is the number of members who must be present in order for the committee to report. This ensures participation by both sides in the action taken. However, a committee may vary the number of members necessary for a quorum for certain actions. For example, a committee may fix the number of its members, but not less than two, necessary for a quorum for taking testimony and receiving evidence. Except for the Committees on Appropriations, the Budget, and Ways and Means, a committee may fix the number of its members, but not less than one-third, necessary for a quorum for taking certain other actions. The absence of a quorum is subject to a point of order, an objection that the proceedings are in violation of a rule of the committee or of the House, because the required number of members are not present.

Points of order with respect to committee hearing procedure

A point of order in the House does not lie with respect to a measure reported by a committee on the ground that hearings on the measure were not conducted in accordance with required committee procedure. However, certain points of order may be made by a member of the committee that reported the measure if, in the committee hearing on that measure, that point of order was (1) timely made and (2) improperly disposed of.


Senate committee rules

Rule XXVI on committee procedure provides that each committee shall adopt rules (not inconsistent with the Standing Rules of the Senate) governing the procedure of such committee. It provides also that the rules of each committee shall be published in the Congressional Record not later than March 1 of each year, except that if any such committee is established on or after February 1 of a year, the rules of that committee during the year of establishment shall be published in the Record within 60 days. An amendment to a committee's rules shall be published in the Record not later than 30 days after the adoption of the amendment.

Committees as a rule have regular meeting days, but they may meet at the call of their chairmen or upon the request of a majority at other times. At these meetings matters on the committee calendar are usually the order of business, but any matter within the committee's jurisdiction may be considered--for example, an investigation of an agency of the Government over which the committee has jurisdiction, or a hearing at which an official discusses policies and operations of his agency.

Once a bill has been introduced and has been referred by the Presiding Officer with the advice of the Parliamentarian, the clerk of the committee enters it upon the committee's Calendar of Business. Any committee may refer its pending bills to its subcommittees for study and reports thereon. Most of the committees have standing subcommittees, and frequently ad hoc subcommittees are appointed to study and report on particular pieces of legislation or to make a study of a certain subject.

Committees or subcommittees generally hold hearings on all major or controversial legislation before drafting the proposal into a final form for reporting to the Senate. The length of hearings and the number of witnesses testifying vary, depending upon the time available, the number of witnesses wanting to be heard, the desires of the committee to hear witnesses, etc. Recommendations of the Administration, in conjunction with the Office of Management and Budget, are sought by the committees on nearly all major legislation, but they are in no way obligated to accept such recommendations.

For example, the Department of Agriculture's Office of Governmental and Public Affairs, providing liaison between the department and the Congress, would be addressed on a bill relating to inspection of livestock, meat, and agricultural products, and the Office of Congressional Affairs of the General Services Administration would be asked to comment on proposed legislation affecting small business, disadvantaged business, and related subcontracting programs. The responses are often used in support of or against matters pending before the Senate by being quoted on the floor or being inserted in the Record by Senators during debate.

A subcommittee makes reports to its full committee, and the latter may adopt such reports without change, amend them in any way it desires, reject them, or adopt an entirely different report.

At a committee's "mark up" session, usually held just prior to reporting a bill or resolution back to the full Senate, the committee makes its final decisions about the content and form of the measure. The full committee then may report it to the Senate favorably with or without amendments, submit an adverse report thereon, or vote not to report on anything.

The measure can be reported with committee amendments which may (a) insert, (b) strike, (c) strike part of the bill and insert other language, or (d) strike the entire text and insert a complete substitute, thereby rejecting in toto the language of the measure as it was referred to, considered by, and reported by the Senate committee. The desired changes in the measure are indicated in the reprinted measure by use of italic type for additions and line-type for strike-outs, in contrast to the original introduced form of the measure which is printed in roman type.

Included may be additions, corrections, or modifications to the preamble of a resolution--the part(s) of a measure prefaced by the word "Whereas," which precedes the resolving clause. These are voted on after passage or adoption of the measure. Such clauses, which are introductory statements declaring the reasons for and the intent of the legislation, if amended, would reflect changes or modifications contained in the text of the measure. Also, the title may be amended.

Committees need not act on all bills referred to them. Under the Senate's rules, a Senator may enter a motion to discharge a committee from the further consideration of any bill, but this is rarely done. By unanimous consent, some bills are discharged from one committee and sent to another. If a motion to discharge is agreed to, the bill is thereby taken out of the jurisdiction of that committee and placed on the Senate Calendar of Business. It may subsequently be referred to another committee.

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