Both the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate have standing, or permanent committees that fulfill critical work on behalf of the American public. Each committee, such as the House Agriculture Committee or the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee has jurisdiction over particular subjects and appoints subcommittees to examine proposals within specific areas. In committees and subcommittees proposals can be examined carefully and various perspectives heard. It is common for these committees and subcommittees to hold public hearings to receive testimony from individuals and groups on matters of interest to them. Many important laws that affect our daily lives such as consumer protection and product safety, national security, the federal highway system, college loans, clean air and water, had their roots through the work of congressional committees.
In his book, “Strengthening Congress” former U.S. Congressman Lee H. Hamilton states,
“Committees are where members of Congress with different backgrounds, political philosophies, and regional outlooks build consensus --- in essence, where they make sure that legislation meets the needs of a broad array of Americans.”
Civics teachers can help their students learn more about the important work of congressional committees by researching their individual websites. For example, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over several areas such as communications and technology, consumer protection and commerce, energy, environment and climate change, and health. If you simply took one of the areas, such as energy, read the committee’s summary of the policy specialization for that issue:
“ Jurisdiction includes national energy policy; fossil energy; renewable energy; nuclear energy; nuclear facilities; the Department of Energy; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; synthetic and alternative fuels; energy conservation; energy information; utility issues; interstate energy compacts; energy generation, marketing, reliability, transmission, siting, exploration, production, efficiency, cybersecurity, and ratemaking for all generated power; pipelines; all laws, programs, and government activities affecting energy matters, including all aspects of the above-referenced jurisdiction related to the Department of Homeland Security.”
By going to the “Hearings” icon on each congressional committee website teachers and students can gain access to key documents that can provide in-depth information about public policy. These documents include opening statements by the Chairperson of the Committee, and the Ranking member of the minority party. It also includes the full written testimony of public witnesses.
U.S. House of Representatives committee websites can be found here: https://www.house.gov/committees.
U.S. Senate committee websites can be found here:
Additional background on congressional committees is provided courtesy of the House office of History, Art & Archives in this edition for educators entitled “What Committees Do for You”:
Mark J. Molli, Associate Director
Center for Civic Education