Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Congressional Committees and the Legislative Process

Created September 25, 2010

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Congressional Committees: Capitol Dome

This lesson plan introduces students to the pivotal role that Congressional committees play in the legislative process, focusing on how their own Congressional representatives influence legislation through their committee appointments. Students begin by reviewing the stages of the legislative process, then learn how committees and subcommittees help determine the outcome of this process by deciding which bills the full Congress will consider and by shaping the legislation upon which votes are finally cast. With this background, students research the committee and subcommittee assignments of their Congressional representatives, then divide into small groups to prepare class reports on the jurisdictions of these different committees and their representatives' special responsibilities on each one. Finally, students consider why representation on these specific committees might be important to the people of their state or community, and examine how the committee system reflects some of the basic principles of American federalism.

Learning Objectives

  • To understand the legislative process of the United States Congress
  • To examine the role that Congressional committees play in this process
  • To learn how one's Congressional representatives can influence legislation through their specific committee assignments
  • To consider how representation on specific Congressional committees can be important to state or community interests.

Preparation Instructions

Begin this lesson by guiding students through the basic process by which a bill becomes law in the United States Congress, using the chalkboard to create a flow-chart diagram of this process. A detailed explanation of the legislative process is available through EDSITEment at the CongressLink website. At the website homepage, click "Table of Contents" in the lefthand menu, then look under the heading, "Know Your Congress" for the link to How Our Laws Are Made, which describes lawmaking from the House of Representatives' point of view. For a corresponding description from the Senate's perspective, look under the "Know Your Congress" heading for the link to "Information about Congress," then select "... The Legislative Process," and click "... Enactment of a Law." CongressLink also provides access to a more succinct account of the legislative process: on the "Table of Contents" page, scroll down and click "Related Web Sites," then scroll down again and click THOMAS, a congressional information website maintained by the Library of Congress. At the THOMAS homepage, look for the heading "Library of Congress Web Links" in the lefthand menu and click "Legislative," then click "About the U.S. Congress" and select "About the U.S. Congress" from the list that follows for a chapter from the U.S. Government Manual that includes this outline of the process:

  • When a bill ... is introduced in the House, [it is assigned] to the House committee having jurisdiction.
  • If favorably considered, it is reported to the House either in its original form or with recommended amendments.
  • If ... passed by the House, it is messaged to the Senate and referred to the committee having jurisdiction.
  • In the Senate committee the bill, if favorably considered, may be reported in the form it is received from the House, or with recommended amendments.
  • The approved bill ... is reported to the Senate and, if passed by that body, returned to the House.
  • If one body does not accept the amendments to a bill by the other body, a conference committee comprised of Members of both bodies is usually appointed to effect a compromise.
  • When the bill ... is finally approved by both Houses, it is signed by the Speaker ... and the Vice President ... and is presented to the President.
  • Once the President's signature is affixed, the measure becomes a law. If the President vetoes the bill, it cannot become law unless it is re-passed by a two-thirds vote of both Houses.

Point out to students the important role that Congressional committees play in this process. Public attention usually focuses on the debate over legislation that occurs on the floor of the House and Senate, but in order for a bill to reach the floor on either side, it must first be approved by a committee, which can also amend the bill to reflect its views on the underlying issue. Congressional committees, in other words, largely control the legislative process by deciding which bills come to a vote and by framing the language of each bill before it is debated.

Provide students with background on the organization and operation of Congressional committees, using resources available through EDSITEment at the CongressLink website. At the CongressLink homepage, click "Table of Contents" in the lefthand menu, then, under the heading "Know Your Congress," select "Information about Congress." Click "... The Legislative Process," then select "The Legislative Process" again for a link to "... The Committee System in the U.S. Congress," which provides an overview from which these key points have been drawn:

  • Although committees are not mentioned in the Constitution, Congress has used committees to manage its business since its first meetings in 1789.
  • Committees enable Congress to divide responsibility for its many tasks, including legislation, oversight, and internal administration, and thereby cope effectively with the great number and complexity of the issues placed before it.
  • There are today approximately 200 Congressional committees and subcommittees in the House and Senate, each of which is responsible for considering all matters that fall within its jurisdiction.
  • Congress has three types of committees: (1) Standing Committees are permanent panels with jurisdiction over broad policy areas (e.g., Agriculture, Foreign Relations) or areas of continuing legislative concern (e.g., Appropriations, Rules); (2) Select Committees are temporary or permanent panels created to consider a specific issue that lies outside the jurisdiction of other committees or that demands special attention (e.g., campaign contributions); (3) Joint Committees are panels formed by the House and Senate together, usually to investigate some common concern rather than to consider legislation, although joint committees known as Conference Committees are formed to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of a specific measure.
  • Many committees divide their work among subcommittees, upon which a limited number of the committee members serve. Subcommittees are responsible for specific areas within the committee's jurisdiction and report their work on a bill to the full committee, which must approve it before reporting the bill to its branch of Congress.
  • Party leaders determine the size of each committee, which average about 40 members in the House and about 18 members in the Senate, and determine the proportion of majority and minority committee members. The majority party always has more seats on a committee and one of its members chairs the committee. Each party also determines committee assignments for its members, observing rules that have been adopted to limit the number and type of committees and subcommittees upon which one member can serve.
  • Each committee's chairperson has authority over its operation. He or she usually sets the committee's agenda, decides when to take or delay action, presides at most committee meetings, and controls the committee's operating budget. Subcommittee chairpersons exercise similar authority over their smaller panels, subject to approval by the committee chair.
  • The work of Congressional committees begins when a bill that has been introduced to the House or Senate is referred to the committee for consideration. Most committees take up only a small percentage of the bills referred to them; those upon which the committee takes no action are said to "die in committee." The committee's first step in considering a bill is usually to ask for written comment by the executive agency that will be responsible for administering it should it become law. Next, the committee will usually hold hearings to gather opinions from outside experts and concerned citizens. If the committee decides to move forward with the bill, it will meet to frame and amend the measure through a process called markup. Finally, when the committee has voted to approve the bill, it will report the measure to its branch of Congress, usually with a written report explaining why the measure should be passed.
  • Once a bill comes to the floor of the House or Senate, the committee that reported it is usually responsible for guiding it through debate and securing its passage. This can involve working out parliamentary strategies, responding to questions raised by colleagues, and building coalitions of support. Likewise, if the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill, the committees that reported each version will take the lead in working out a compromise through a conference committee.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Research the committees and subcommittees

Have students research the committees and subcommittees upon which their Congressional representatives serve, using library resources or the resources available through EDSITEment at the CongressLink website.

  • To help students find out who your Congressional representatives are, click "Know Your Congress" in the lefthand menu on the CongressLink homepage, then enter your school zipcode into the search form. (This search form is set up for zip+4 zipcodes, but you can type a 5-digit zipcode into the first box and still search successfully.)
  • Click the "Search Now" button for a report (from the Congress.Org website) listing your representatives in the House and Senate.
  • Click on the name of each representative for a profile, including a photograph, which lists the representative's committee assignments.
  • Click on the name of each committee for a complete roster of the committee's members and a list of its subcommittees. There is also a "Committee Jurisdiction" link on this page that will provide an outline of the committee's areas of responsibility.
  • To find out which subcommittee a representative serves on, select each subcommittee name and click the "Get Subcommittee Roster."
  • For an overview of Congressional committees and their jurisdictions, click "Know Your Congress" in the lefthand menu at the CongressLink homepage and select "Information about Congress," and select "... The Legislative Process," then select "The Legislative Process" again for links to ... Committees of the U.S. Senate and Committees of the U.S. House of Representatives, two reports (prepared in 1996 and 1995 respectively) which describe each committee and list its subcommittees.

Divide the class into small groups and have each group prepare a report on one of the committees (or subcommittees) upon which one of your Congressional representatives serves, including the size of the committee, its jurisdiction, and whether your representative has a leadership post on the committee. Encourage students to include as well information about legislation currently before the committee. They can find this information using library resources or through the CongressLink website, accessible through EDSITEment. At the CongressLink homepage, click "Related Web Sites" in the lefthand menu, then scroll down and click THOMAS, where students can click on the current Congress under the heading "Bill Summary & Status" to retrieve a search form that includes an option to find all bills referred to any committee (# 7 at the bottom of the search form). Under the heading "Committee Reports," students can click on the current Congress to retrieve a search form that includes an option to find all reports issued by any committee (# 4 on the search form). In addition, under the headings "House Committees" and "Senate Committees," students can find up-to-date links to committee hearing schedules.

After students present their reports, discuss how committee assignments can affect a Congressional representative's ability to effectively represent his or her constituents. Do your representatives have seats on committees with jurisdiction over issues that have special importance for your state or community? If so, how might their presence on these committees help assure that Congress takes action on questions of local interest? Do your representatives have seats on committees with jurisdiction over important legislative activities, such as budget-making or appropriations? If so, how might their presence on these powerful committees help assure that your community's views receive careful Congressional consideration? After exploring these questions, have students debate the extent to which a Congressional representative's committee vote may be more influential than his or her vote on the floor of the House or Senate. Which vote has more impact on legislation? In this regard, have students consider President Woodrow Wilson's observation that "Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work."

Activity 2. How do Congressional committees reflects some of the fundamental principles of federalism?

Conclude by having students consider how the structure and function of Congressional committees reflects some of the fundamental principles of federalism. For a broad discussion of federalism, have students read The Federalist No. 39, in which James Madison highlights the Constitution's provisions for a federal, as distinguished from a national, form of government. (For a text of this essay, click "Related Web Sites" in the lefthand menu at the CongressLink homepage, scroll down and click THOMAS, then select "Historical Documents" in the lefthand menu; click "The Federalist Papers," then click "A list of titles" and select 39 in the index.) Have students imagine, for example, that they are members of a Congressional committee that is considering a bill with special importance for the people of your community. How would they balance their responsibilities to their constituents with their responsibilities to the nation as a whole? To what extent is this a question each Congressional representative must answer individually? To what extent is it a question that the mechanisms of our government answer through the legislative process?

Extending The Lesson

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Debate
  • Discussion
  • Oral presentation skills

Resources

Media