Legislative Committee System

Legislative committees (sometimes called commissions) are units of organization within a legislative chamber that allow groups of legislatures to review policy matters or proposed bills more closely than would be possible by the entire chamber. In many countries, referral to committee is a formal step in the process of adopting a bill (see Stages of Legislative Procedure). The possible roles of the committees vary from country to country, depending upon the governing system, strength and organization of political parties, available resources and other political factors. Roles might include initiating and amending bills, administrative review, investigations and budgetary review. Committees may also be the locale where inter-party negotiations occur. Few countries, even those that also have a presidential system, have a committee system that approaches the power of the US congressional committees to initiate, amend or bury legislation. (For more information, see Table V: Role of the Committee in the Legislative Process.)

Committee systems that play a major role in shaping legislative outcomes often share at least some of the following attributes:

The Standing Rules of a legislative chamber may list the committees to be formed, provide rules for assigning members and chairs of committees and decide how much power to grant them. In some cases, constitutions require the establishment of committees in general and/or require specific committees. Committees may be permanent, or they may be organized around a particular topic or bill.

Number, Size and Membership of Committees

The number and size of committees vary greatly and does not necessarily correspond to the size of the legislature.

Legislative rules often require each legislator to sit on at least one committee, but they differ in how members are selected and on the number of committees on which they can serve.

Committee chairs, who lead committee activities and are often looked to as experts on the committee’s subject matter, are determined in several ways.

Committee leaders have different roles in the legislative process in different governing systems.

For a comparison of committee systems on number and appointment process, see Table I.

Activities and Types of Committees

There are two major types of committees. Ad hoc committees are formed for the purpose of reviewing particular bills or groups of bills and then are disbanded when that work is completed. They are typical of the British Westminster and some other parliamentary systems where the ministerial cabinets dominate the legislative process. Closely related to "ad hoc" committees are "sessional committees". These exist only for a single legislative session, but are then regularly reconstituted at the beginning of the next session (this is the practice in Uganda). In permanent committees (sometimes called standing committees), the jurisdiction of the committee is defined by subject matter, which tends to parallel the structure of the administrative or cabinet agencies (such as committees on Health, Defense, Labor, Education, Finance, etc.) There are other types of permanent committees, including those that oversee the rules of the legislature or that have specific auditing functions. In bicameral systems, reconciliation committees may meet to revise differences in a bill that is modified by two different chambers.

In addition to reviewing and in some cases initiating proposed bills oversight committees hold private and/or public meetings to examine the executive branch’s implementation of the laws, call witnesses and produce reports. Permanent committees may act as oversight committees. In the UK and similar Westminster systems, committees that parallel the ministries are called select committees and may be permanent. They have an oversight rather than legislative function. Legislatures may also form committees appointed for a given period to consider a specific matter. In presidential systems, these are called select committees. They differ from the Westminster select committees because they do not necessarily mirror the cabinet ministries in subject matter and always exist for a short term. For example, the US Congress recently established a Select Committee to research and publisize the Year 2000 computer problems. The select committees do not usually have formal legislative powers, but are organized to gather information, examine witnesses and hold public hearings.

For a comparison of committee systems and their oversight roles, see Table II: Attendance at Committee Meetings.

Committee Meetings and Hearings

When do committees meet?

Many legislatures place controls on the times during which committees can meet. In many instances, committees do not, or cannot, meet when the legislative chamber is meeting in plenary or full session, or they meet and take recesses when the plenary is voting. Most committees meet during the time when the legislature is in session, but special rules may allow committees to meet at other times.

How do committee members vote?

Committees usually reach decisions by a vote of the majority. The "majority" may not mean a majority of committee members, but a majority of a certain minimal number of members present (a quorum). Voting is usually less formal than in the plenary (i.e. it may be a show of hands.)

For a comparison of timing of committee meetings, see Table IV: Meetings of Committees.

Public Access to Committees

Many countries hold committee meetings in private. Others allow their committee meetings to be open to the public, as required by their internal rules, the constitution or by practice (although they may occasionally close them if the subject matter affects national security). Others hold a mix of public and private meetings. Rules concerning public meetings allow for advance posting of time and date, radio or television broadcast and/or the distribution of written transcripts of the meetings.

Committees in some legislatures hold public hearings to gather information on legislation, policy issues or to exercise oversight of the executive branch. Members may solicit the opinion of legal and academic experts, representatives of business and civic organizations and individual citizens. In some cases, they can call upon executive branch members to testify or to defend policies.

The benefits of public hearings may include:

Committee Staff

Staff size and degree of professionalism reflects the relative importance of committees in a given system. It also reflects a legislature’s overall access to resources. Committees may be organized with a secretariat that employs staff and organizes the administration of the committee. In the US, each of the 19 permanent committees in the lower house can employ 18 professional and 12 clerical staff. Staff may arrange committee meetings, conduct research, assist in drafting legislation, provide expert advice, etc. The minority party may hire one third of the staff. In contrast, in the Legislative Assembly of Argentina, each committee has access to a secretary, an administrative secretary and two clerical assistants.

For a comparison of committee leadership and staff, see Table III: Chair and Staff of Committees.

Why Strong Committees?

Committees provide several benefits for the internal organization of a legislature:

Criticism of a strong committee system usually revolves around the differences in the design of parliamentary systems vs. presidential ones. For example:

Strong Committee Systems (US) Weak Committee Systems (UK)
Committee jurisdiction is defined by subject matter, which tends to parallel the structure of the administrative agencies. Committees are formed for the purpose of reviewing particular bills and then are disbanded.


Membership/tenure
on a given committee tends to last the entire legislative term and often during a number of terms -- committee leaders may have more experience in a given area than the relevant Cabinet Minister or Secretary.
Membership/tenure on a committee is temporary and doesn’t encourage particular members to gain expertise. Expertise lies in the Cabinet Ministries.


Chairmanships
tend to go to the committee members with long experience on the committee.
The membership and leadership of committees is constantly changing.
There are a number of permanent, or standing, committees. Most committees are ad hoc.

Table 1: Committees

The following table was reprinted with the permission of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs from their document: Committees in Legislatures: A Division of Labor.

 
Country & House(s)

Number of Permanent Committees

Appointment of

Committee Members

Restrictions on Multiple Memberships

ARGENTINA

Senate

Chamber of Deputies





41

38

Bicameral: 4
 Both Houses: Delegate power to appoint committee members to the President. Composition proportional to party strength.  

Both Houses: No

 

BULGARIA

National Assembly

 

18

 

Composition proportional to party strength.
 

No more than 2.

CANADA

Senate

House of Commons

 

13

20

Joint: 3

 

By Committee of Selection (9 Members appointed at beginning of session). For Standing Committees: On adoption of report of the Striking Committee; for Special Committees: By House.
 

No

 

COSTA RICA

Legislative Assembly

 









6
 

Composition proportional to party strength.
 

No more than one permanent committee.

EL SALVADOR*

Legislative Assembly

 







14
 

Composition proportional to party strength; party faction decides.
 

No

FRANCE

Senate

National Assembly

 

6

6

 

Both Houses: Composition proportional to party strength.
 

Both Houses: No more than one permanent committee.

GERMANY

Federal Diet

Federal Council

 


Select: 24

Select: 24

 

Both Houses: Composition proportional to party strength.
 

Both Houses: No
HUNGARY



National Assembly

 

 

Standing: 11

Special: 6

 

Composition proportional to party strength.
 

No

INDIA

House of the People*

Council of States

 

12

9

Joint committees: 7

Department Related: 17 (Standing Committees)

 

Both Houses: Appointed or elected by the House on a motion made, or nominated by the Presiding Officer under the rules.

 

Both Houses: No

 

IRELAND

Senate

Dail

 Select committees: 2

3

Joint committees: 2
 

By the Committee of Selection of the House, taking account of the strength of parties and non-party groups.
 

Both Houses: No

 JAPAN

House of Councillors

 

House of Representatives

 







17

 

20
Both Houses: Places are allocated by the Presiding Officer proportional to party strength. Limited to 2 standing committees.

At least 1 standing committee(but those holding other office may refuse). Special Committees unrestricted.

JORDAN

Senate

House of Deputies

  

Permanent: 4

Temporary & Ad Hoc: 8
 

Elected by secret ballot.
  

House:

Not more than 2.
NAMIBIA



National Assembly
 

Permanent: 4
 

Nominated by the parties and announced by the speaker.
 

No
PORTUGAL



Assembly of the Republic
 

Permanent: 12
 

Composition proportional to party strength.
Restricted to 2 permanent committees, or 3, if a group is too small to be represented on all committees.

ROMANIA

House of Deputies

Senate

 

14

14

Joint on Intelligence Service: 1

 

Composition proportional to party strength and the party then selects who will serve on each committee.
 

Both Houses: Restrict membership to 2 committees. If on joint Intelligence Service Committee then can serve on no others.

RUSSIA

State Duma

Council of the Federation

 

23

13

 

Both Houses: Composition proportional to party strength.
 

Both Houses: No more than 1.
SENEGAL



National Assembly
 



11
 

Appointed by the Assembly following proposals from the group chairman.
 

Limited to 3 committees. Bureau members may not serve on parliamentary committees.

THAILAND

House of Representatives*

Senate

 

15

 

13

 

Both Houses: Elected members relative to party strength.

 

Limited to 2 committees.

 

Limited to 1 committees.

UNITED KINGDOM

House of Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

House of Lords

 

30

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 (with 10 permanent sub committees)

 

Committee of selection nominates standing committees and proposes members of 14 select departmental committees for appointment by the House. Other select committees are appointed by the House on motion of Government Whip after discussions between the parties.

On recommendation of the Committee of Selection except Ecclesiastical Committee and the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills whose members are recommended by the Lord Chancellor.

 

Both Houses: None

UNITED STATES

Senate

 

 

House of Representatives

 

Standing: 16

Select committees: 3

Special committees: 1

Standing: 19

Select Permanent: 2

Joint: 4

 

Both Houses: Elected by each House proportional to party strength.

 

Usually 3 Standing committees plus 1 Select committee.

Limit to 1 or 2 with certain exceptions by party rules.

Table 2: Chair and Staff of Committees

The following table was reprinted with the permission of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs from their document: Committees in Legislatures: A Division of Labor.

Country & House(s)

Appointment of Chair

Distribution of Chair among Parties

Committee Secretariat

Secretariat Functions:

    A) Administrative

    B)Research

    C)Document Preparation

ARGENTINA

Senate

Chamber of Deputies

Both Houses: Elected by members of each committee. Both Houses: Chairs awarded proportional to party strength. Both Houses: Each committee appoints a secretary. The admin-istration provides an administrative secretary, typist and stenographer.

Both Houses:

A) Yes

B) No

C) No

BULGARIA



National Assembly
 Consultations with political forces. Chairs are elected by the assembly from a list formulated by each party. Oppo-sition parties may decline to nominate chairs and are rewarded by the majority with Deputy Chairs. 1 technical secretary and 1 expert plus consultants depending upon the budget of the committee. A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes
CANADA

Senate

House of Representatives
 

Both Houses: Elected by members of each committee.
 

Both Houses: Chair is in principle member of ruling party. In the Commons, the Committee on Public Accounts is an exception.
 

Committee clerk is designated by the Chief of Committees and Private Legislation Branch of each Chamber. Research officers from the library are assigned to committees on request.

 

Both Houses:

A) Yes

B) Yes

B) Yes

COSTA RICA

Legislative Assembly

 

Appointed by the President of the Assembly.
 

None
 

Each committee has a secretariat attached to it drawn from the administrative personnel of the Assembly.

 

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) No

EL SALVADOR

Legislative Assembly

 

Elected by plenary.
 

Chairs awarded according to relative strength of parties; majority party decides which committee it chairs.
 

Each committee has 1 technical assistant and 1 secretary.

 

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

FRANCE

Senate

 

 

National Assembly

 

Both Houses:

Elected by each committee.

 

 

Concerted attempt to distribute between the political groups.

Distributed among the groups forming the parliamentary party.

 

Both Houses: Permanent secretariat of several people for each committee.

 

Both Houses:

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

 

GERMANY

Federal Diet

Federal Council

 

Both Houses: Appointed according to agreements by the parliamentary groups.
 

Both Houses: According to their relative strengths.
 

Both Houses: Permanent with 1 secretary and assistant as well as clerical staff as needed.

 

Both Houses:

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

HUNGARY

National Assembly

 

Elected by the plenary.
 

Proportional, ad hoc bargaining.
 

Permanent, independent from caucus, hired by Parliament Administration.

 

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

INDIA

Council of States

House of the People

 

 

 

 

Both Houses:

Appointed from among the committee members by the respective Presiding Officer. The Presiding Officer is ex-officio Chair of some committees.

 

Both Houses:

Effort is generally made to accomodate maximum number of parties and groups in proportion to strength. However, a practice exists in which Chair of the Public Accounts Committee is from the opposition.

 

Both Houses:

Provided according to the requirements of each committee. The House Secretary is secretary to all committees but is assisted by the Joint Secretary.

 

Not applicable.

 

IRELAND

Senate

Dail

 

Both Houses: Elected by each committee except for Joint Committee on a Private Bill where chair is jointly appointed by Chair of each House and committee on Procedure and Privileges of both houses have ex officio chairs.
 

Both Houses: By agreement in the committee or by majority decision.
 

Both Houses: Provided from parliamentary staff.

 

Both Houses:

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

 

JAPAN

House of Councillors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

House of Representative

 

Both Houses:

Elected by House from committee members or House may delegate nomination to Presiding Officer for standing committees. Special committees elect their chair.

 

 

According to relative group strength.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice allocates to ruling party.

 

Both Houses: Each committee has a professional advisor and researchers and can draw on parliamentary staff.

 

Both Houses:

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

JORDAN

Senate

House of Deputies

 

 

 

Elected by each committee.

 

 

 

Not Applicable.

 

 

 

 

One secretary for each committee.

 

 

 

A) No

B) Yes

C) Yes

NAMIBIA

National Assembly

 

Elected by Committee.
 

Depending on election.
 

Comprised of the Civil Service.

 

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

PORTUGAL

Assembly of the Republic

 

Elected by each committee.
 

Proportional to their strength in the Assembly.
 

Generally civil servants provided by the Assembly Committee Service. 1 to 4 depend-ing on committee.

 

A) Yes

B) Exceptionally

C) Yes

ROMANIA

House of Deputies

Senate

 

Both Houses: Party elects but the plenary has a right of refusal.
 

Both Houses: Proportional among the parliamentary factions.
 

Both Houses: Hired by Secretary General of both Chambers and Committee Chairs select from a pool of 1 to 3 per committee.

 

Both Houses:

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

 

RUSSIA

State Duma

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Council of the Federation

 

A complex situation of weighed committee chairs and bargaining occurs which results in a balanced chair distribution among parties.

Chair & Deputies elected by committee. Only Chair confirmed by the whole council.

 

Both Houses: The chairs are weighed according to their power and the parties bid on which chairs they want.
 

 

 

Both Houses:

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

SENEGAL

National Assembly

 

Elected by each committee.
 

Proportionally to their strength in the Assembly.
 

A Member is elected Secretary. The Financial and Economic Affairs Committee also appoints a General Rapporteur.

 

A) Yes

B) No

C) Yes

THAILAND

Senate

 

 

House of Representatives

 

Both Houses:

Elected by each committee.

 

No

 

 

Members of government party.

 

Staff provided by Secretariat of the Senate.

A secretary and other staff provided by parliament.

 

Both Houses:

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

UNITED KINGDOM

House of Lords

 

 

House of Commons

 

 

 

 

Selected by the House, or in default, by the committee.

Elected by each committee.

 

 

No party distribution.

 

 

Varies, some are allotted on a party basis by convention.

 

A clerk and one or more specialist advisers as suitable and a secretary.

 

A clerk, one or more assistants, a secretary and part-time specialist advisers.

 

A) Yes

B) To a limited extent

C) Yes

 

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

UNITED STATES

Senate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

House of Representatives

 

Traditionally committee members nominate the longest-serving member. The nomination is ratified in full party caucus before election by Senate resolution.

Formally elected by the House but appointed by the majority party.

 

Both Houses:

All Chairs are members of the majority party.

 

Standing committee staff ranges from 22 to 153.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staff varies from 30 to 140 with an average of about 70 per committee.

 

Both Houses:

A) Yes

B) Yes

C) Yes

Table 3: Role of the Committee

in the Legislative Process

The following table was reprinted with the permission of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs from their document: Committees in Legislatures: A Division of Labor.

 Country & House(s)

Is Committee Stage Prerequisite for Adoption

of Bill

Are Any Bills Automatically Referred to Committees

Are There Provisions for External Consultations at Committee Stage

ARGENTINA

Senate

Chamber of Deputies

 

Both Houses: Yes, except very occasionally when the House decides on immediate consideration.
 

Both Houses: Yes
 

Both Houses: No provisions but possible.

BULGARIA

National Assembly

 

Yes
 

President of parliament decides which committees review legislation.
 

Yes and is done from time to time.

CANADA

Senate

House of Commons

 

Both Houses: Yes
 

Both Houses: All bills.
 

Both Houses: Standing Orders empower committees to send for persons, papers, and records required to discharge their mandate.

COSTA RICA

Legislative Assembly

 

Yes
 

Not Applicable.
 

Committee may invite oral and written comments from interested parties.

EL SALVADOR

Legislative Assembly

 

Yes
 

Some go directly to committees (
i.e., budget) and others are assigned.
 

Yes, the Rules of Procedure state that committees may consult individuals to clarify issues and requisition documents from the government or a private organization.

FRANCE

Senate

National Assembly

 

Both Houses: Yes
 

Both Houses: Referral to appropriate permanent committee, except when special committee is created.
 

Both Houses: No

GERMANY

Federal Diet

Federal Council

 

Both Houses: Yes
 

Both Houses: No
 

Both Houses: Yes, hearing experts.

HUNGARY

National Assembly

 

Yes
 

All
 

Not obliged yet possible and used.

INDIA

House of the People

Council of States

 

Both Houses: No, committee stage is only motion of House or if referred to the Committee by the presiding officer of the respective house.
 

Both Houses: No
 

Both Houses: Oral and documentary evidence as considered necessary.

IRELAND


Senate

Dail

 

Both Houses: Yes
 

Both Houses: All Bills referred, usually to committee of whole House.
 

Both Houses: Select Committees may send for persons and documents, and may take evidence upon any Bill. Special reports may be made of any matters thought fit to bring forward.

JAPAN

House of Councillors

House of Representatives

 

Both Houses: Yes, except by urgent request of the proposer and House resolution may the committee stage be ommitted.
 

Both Houses: Yes
 

Both Houses: Generally no, but on important matters a committee can hold open hearings and if neccessary it may hear from witnesses.

JORDAN

Senate

House of Deputies

 

 

 

Yes

 

 

 

All bills.

 

 

 

Standing Orders provide for committee to invite any person it wishes to hear.

NAMIBIA

National Assembly

 

No
 

No
 

No

PORTUGAL

Assembly of the Republic

 

Yes
 

Yes
 

Yes, certain legislation requires consultation with NGOs such as labor laws and committees are entitled to consult experts and NGOs on any matter.

ROMANIA

Senate

House of Deputies

 

Both Houses: Yes
 

Both Houses: Yes
 

Both Houses: Not prohibited.

RUSSIA

State Duma

 

 

Council of the Federation

 

Yes

 

 

Yes

 

Submitted first to Duma then automatically to committees.

Yes

 

Both Houses: Yes.

SENEGAL

National Assembly

 

Yes
 

If requested by the representative of the President of the Republic or the relevant committee.
 

Yes

THAILAND

Senate

 

 

House of Representatives

 

No

 

 

Yes, normally by ad hoc committee.

 

No, referred to committee by the resolution of the Senate.

Not Applicable.

 

Both Houses: Yes

UNITED KINGDOM

House of Lords

 

 

House of Commons

 

All Bills are referred to a committee except by agreement otherwise.

All Bills except those authorizing government expenditures.

 

 

 

 

 

Public Bills referred to standing committees unless the House orders otherwise.

 

Yes, but only in those rare cases of bills referred to a select committee.

Yes, but only in those rare cases of bills refered to a select committee. Recent experiments have allowed standing committees to take evidence.

UNITED STATES

Senate

 

 

 

 

 

House of Representatives

 

Both Houses: Committee consideration usual but not mandatory.

 

Usually, House passed bills not referred to the Senate committee if a Senate bill or related subject has already been referred.

No, at the Speaker's discretion. Speaker rarely refers one bill to several committees and sets time limits for committee action.

 

Both Houses: Yes

 

 

 

Further Reading

1. Inter-Parliamentary Union, Parliaments of the World, Geneva, IPU. (see website below)

2. Kurian, George Thomas, ed., World Encyclopedia of Parliaments and Legislatures, Volume II, 1998.

3. Longley, Lawrence D. and Roger H. Davidson, eds., The New Roles of Parliamentary Committees, The Journal of Legislative Studies, Frank Cass Publishers, Issue 4.1, 1998. (see website below)

4. National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Committees in Legislatures: A Division of Labor, Legislative Research Series, Paper # 2, 1996.

5. Ogle, David B., Management and Organization of Representative Assemblies, National

Council of State Legislatures, 1997.

6. Olson, David M., Democratic Legislative Institutions: A Comparative View, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York, London, England, 1994.

Websites

www.ipu.org – PARLINE database provides links to sites of various parliaments, some include a description of committee systems.

www.frankcass.com/jnls/jls.htm – Publishers of The Journal of Legislative Studies. Includes article abstracts and subscription and ordering information.

Organizations focusing on this area:

International Republican Institute – www.iri.org

Inter-Parliamentary Union – www.ipu.org

National Democratic Institute for International Affairs – www.ndi.org