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.
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:
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:
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.
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."
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?