Standing committees are part of the process by which a Bill becomes part of statute law in the United Kingdom. After the two readings in the House of Commons, but before a final vote, the Bill is passed to a standing committee. It is here that, in theory, scrutiny and amendment of the Bill takes place.

Unlike select committees, standing committees are set up as and when they are needed. They operate along party political lines, and political parties are represented in proportion to their number of seats in the House of Commons.

As mentioned above, it is the purpose of standing committees to scrutinise legislation. This is where legislation is considered in depth (its first reading in the House of Commons being little more than a summary) and amendments are made to parts which are unnecessary, unethical (for want of a better term), unenforceable or contradicting other laws. In theory, the standing committee stage is the most important of the legislative process, as this is where backbench (non-Cabinet) and opposition MPs have some say in the shape of the final Bill. It is also where any problems should be solved. Scrutiny of existing and proposed legislation is considered to be one of the main functions of Parliament and, along with the debate, the standing committees are where this takes place.

In practice, however, effective scrutiny does not always happen. The main reasons for this are the party political nature of the committee, and the government's imposition of the guillotine. What often happens is that the Opposition1 object to most of the Bill (which has, as a rule, been proposed by the government; there are very few Private Members' Bills) on principle, and immediately start proposing all sorts of amendments. This takes time which could be used for proper, non-party-based scrutiny. Eventually the government becomes impatient with the committee and imposes the guillotine, which is a time limit on the committee's deliberations. In this way, the Bill reaches its third reading in the Commons without being properly checked, and bad legislation gets passed.

If you want to know more about how Bills become Acts, I recommend webtoe's excellent writeup under House of Commons.

1 Opposition with an upper-case 'o' refers to the non-government party in a two party system. For instance, in Britain, if Labour are in power, the Conservatives are the Opposition, and vice versa.

American Congress

Standing committees are a permanent part of Congress. The Legislative Re-organizational act of 1946 as amended determines how many congressmen are in each standing committee and how many committees there will be and if they will be in Senate or the House. “As amended” is important because it is the only way that the makeup of these committees can be changed.

Standing committees were developed in order to get work done. The process of making a bill a law is so complicated that if standing committees didn’t exist, nothing would get done. This is how it works. A bill gets introduced to (lets use the Senate for our example) the Senate. There are about 400 – 800 bills introduced into Senate every session. In order for anything to happen to these bills the workload needs to be divided. These groups that the bills are broken down into are called standing committees. Each standing committee has a name and specific types of bills that it deals with. Of the 400 – 800 bills introduced about 40 – 80 go to each committee. In each standing committee there are sub-committees. Each sub-committee gets about 4 – 8 bills. An example of a committee working together to get things done is presented in New York Times article “Senate Panel Acts to Block TV Ownership Rule.” “A Senate committee today unanimously approved a spending measure with provisions that would block a rule allowing the nation’s largest television networks to grow bigger by buying more stations.” The entire committee, made up of Democrats and Republicans, worked together to pass this bill onto the floor for a vote.

After the bills have been thus categorized, it is now possible to get to work on them. It is in the sub-committee that each bill has its first public hearing. This is where people other than congressmen and presidential staff can come in and tell the Senators on the sub-committee how they feel about a bill. After the public hearing there is a ‘mark-up’ done to the bill. This is where the Senators of the sub-committee get together and revise the bill so that it will say what they want it to. After the mark-up is complete, the bill is presented to the general attention of the standing committee. In this stage the bill may have another public hearing held in its honor. The article “Senate Democrats Boycott Hearing on E.P.A. Nominee,” in the New York Times talks about one such event and how it can effect all of Congress in just one place in a standing committee. “Senate Democrats boycotted a committee hearing on Wednesday morning..., delaying a vote that would have moved it to the Senate floor.” However, there is usually only one public hearing held in the sub-committee for each bill. There is then another mark-up done to the bill. This mark-up is never as important as the first, because the people in the sub-committees are usually trusted to know what they are talking about. After a bill has made it out of the standing committee the bill gets put on the calendar so that all of the Senate can vote on it. This particular part of a bill’s journey is pretty much the same in the House.

The standing committee that a congressman is assigned to is very important. I’ll explain how that works. There are 20 standing committees in the House of Representatives that 435 people need to be put on. Each House member is usually only on 1 standing committee. There are 17 standing committees that 100 Senators need to be put on. Each Senator is usually on two or three standing committees. The majority party decides what the Repuplican/Democrat distribution will be for each committee. The normal rule is that each committee has the same percentage of Republicans as does the whole makeup of the House/Senate. This is also known as the proportional rule. However, in the House, there are three committees that are not proportional. These committees are Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Rules. The assignments for the specific people are decided by the leaders in a party committee. These are called committee on committees and there are four of them: House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and Senate Democrats. All returning congressmen have the right to go back to their old committees. If they do not want to go back to their old committees than they can ask the leaders to move them (the leaders can say no). The first time congressmen get whatever is left over.

There is a chairman for each standing committee and he is the most powerful person on the committee. All of the chairmen are men. Some of the sub-committee chairmen are women, but are still called chairman. By written law, a 1973 amendment to the 1946 Legislative Re-organizational Act, the chair is picked by votes of the majority party caucus. By unwritten traditional law, the chair is the majority party member who has been on the committee the longest. The minority party member who has been on the committee the longest is called the ranking member. The chairman has three powers. The chairman picks what majority members get put on what sub-committees. The ranking member picks minority sub-committee members. The chairman also picks the sub-committee chairman. The chairman is also in charge of the agenda. That means that the chairman controls everything that goes on in the standing committee.

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