The committee process: How to make committees work for you

Posted 15 August 2007

Before one can truly appreciate the legislative process, one must first have an understanding of the committee system and the vital role that committees play in the process of shaping and moving a bill through the legislative system. Ultimately, a committee can make or break a bill. They do this by deciding whether or not to hear a bill, deciding who can testify on a bill, voting to move a bill forward, referring a bill to another committee, and in some cases, tabling a bill. It is therefore extremely important that one understand how the committee system works before beginning the process of drafting and sending a bill through the legislature.

Once a bill has been introduced, it is assigned to a committee. This is an important step in the process because assignment to the wrong committee can spell the end of a bill. In the majority of states, the House Speaker or Senate President makes the committee assignments. Other methods include assignment by a committee or by another member of the leadership. The decision of which committee is assigned certain bills is usually based on the bill's subject matter as well as the jurisdiction of various committees. However, if the person assigning the bill is opposed to the legislation, often times he or she can send it to a committee which is very unlikely to move it forward.

Once a bill has reached committee, the chair of the committee usually decides whether or not to hear the bill. By hearing the bill, the committee has the chance not only to hear both proponents and opponents speak, but also to amend and shape the bill in any way they choose.

Committee hearings are generally open to the public and they are the best opportunity for one to speak up in favor or in opposition to the particular bill being heard. Once the chair announces the beginning of a hearing on a specific bill, the first speaker is generally the bill's sponsor followed by members from both chambers who wish to comment on the bill. Once the members have spoken, it is generally open for public discussion by those who wish to comment and who have signed the witness sheet upon entering the hearing.

The committee members will often times ask the witness a lot of questions and may also propose various amendments throughout the hearing. Committee members may walk into the hearing already having drafted amendments they wish to propose. Other times, members will propose amendments after hearing the testimony. The amendments are voted on by the committee members and once an amendment passes, the bill is re-drafted to reflect those changes. In some cases, committees may propose so many amendments, that by the time final action is taken on the bill, it is unrecognizable in its original form. This often times happens when the committee members are already opposed to the bill before the hearing even begins, but want the chance to shape it in a way that more closely reflects their own stance. And, because committees are chaired by members of the majority party, a bill sponsored by a member of the minority party may or may not have a harder time being pushed through a committee at all, much less in its original form.

The committee's final action is a vote to determine whether to send the bill to the full House or Senate with a specific recommendation (favorable or unfavorable) or with no recommendation. In most states, committees are not required to report the bills at all and some may even rewrite the proposed legislation and report a committee substitute for the original bill. Because committees act in an advisory capacity, their actions must be voted on by all members during a House or Senate Session.

There are several types of committees. A standing committee continues in existence from one legislative session to the next, and the name usually reflects the subject matter of the bills it hears. All bills and resolutions introduced are referred to one or more of the chamber's standing committees.

Joint committees consist of members from both chambers. In most states, they are formed for a particular study or purpose such as to study and develop legislation dealing with state appropriations. Interim committees are also used to study a specific subject and cease to exist once their work is done. The difference, however, is that interim committees work between legislative sessions. Finally, conference committees are used to resolve differences in the language of bills passed by both chambers.

Because the various committees have so much influence and power over the bills that they hear, it is very important to be aware of how they work and the ways in which one can help influence committee action. The following are suggestions on how to make committees work for you.

  1. Be Aware of Hearing Dates and Attend! Committee hearings are generally open to the public and states encourage public participation by requiring timely notice of hearings. Make sure you are aware of any hearings scheduled on those bills in which you have an interest and try to attend. By attending the hearings you can become aware of how the legislators feel about the particular bill as well as what areas you or they may be willing to compromise.
  2. Testify! Be willing to testify on those bills in which you or your organization has an interest. By testifying you are able to get your feelings about the bill across to the legislators who will ultimately decide its fate. Also, encourage others in your organization or outside your organization who have a stake in the bill to do the same. It also helps to have an expert witness who is willing to testify because it shows the members of the committee that you have done your research. When testifying, be sure to always bring a copy of your comments and/or points for committee members and staff. Finally, even if you cannot or are unable to offer testimony, most committees will allow you to formally enter your support or opposition to a bill.
  3. If You Do Decide To Testify, Be Prepared! Once you have decided to testify, make sure that you have prepared by writing down all major points you wish to get across to the members of the committee. You may or may not be limited in time so be sure to be concise and get to the point. Also, be prepared for questions. You will probably already have an idea as to how the committee feels about a particular bill so make sure you are prepared to answer both the basic and the difficult questions that may pop up!
  4. Lobby Members of the Committee! In general, legislators are much more focused on and aware of what goes on in their committees than the legislature as a whole so find out where your bill is being heard and lobby members of that committee. Visit those members in their chambers and discuss with them why you are in favor of or opposed to a particular bill. Again, be clear and concise and always be ready to answer questions. By talking with the members before the committee hearing, you can get your point across and then you are able to reinforce it when you testify.
  5. Be Willing to Compromise! Very rarely does a bill pass through a committee without being amended at all. Thus, it is important that you be willing to compromise on certain aspects of a bill. It is in committee that compromises can be reached before a bill moves into becoming a law.

Keep in mind that legislative staff may also be an asset to your advocacy. Where the structural organization of staff permits, you may be able to gain insight into the committee process and the politics surrounding your bill or legislative topic by discussing it with staff.

Ultimately, the committee hearing the bill has the power to move it forward or send it into oblivion. Thus, committees are the heart of the legislative process and where the most significant work occurs. Members of the committee are given time to consider legislation and reflect on the good aspects of the bill as well as the bad, before it is moved to the floor for a vote. Therefore, becoming familiar with the committee system and being able to testify on behalf of or in opposition to a bill is your best chance to see the legislature do what you think needs to be done.