House Committee Jurisdiction and Referral: Rules and Practice
House Committee Jurisdiction and Referral:
Rules and Practice
Specialist on the Congress
Government and Finance Division
Committee jurisdiction is determined by a variety of factors. Paramount is House
Rule X, which designates the subject matter within the purview of each standing
committee. House Rule X, however, is both largely broad and the product of an era in
which governmental activity was not so extensive and relations among policies not so
intertwined as now. Most of Rule X was drawn from 19th and 20th century precedents and
codified in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. Although the rule underwent
modest revisions in 1974 and 1980, as well as more extensive changes in the 104th and
109th Congresses, topic omissions and a lack of clarity, as well as overlaps among
committees in areas of jurisdiction, still exist. Accordingly, the formal provisions of the
rule are supplemented by an intricate series of precedents and informal agreements
governing the referral of legislation.
In general, based on precedent, once a measure has been referred to a given
committee, it remains the responsibility of that committee. If the measure is enacted into
law, amendments to the law are presumed to be within the originating committee’s
jurisdiction. Relatedly, bills that are more comprehensive than the measure they amend
or supersede are presumed to be within the jurisdiction of the committee reporting the
more comprehensive measure. The resultant accretion of subject responsibility greatly
broadens the range and scope of jurisdictional subjects assigned to each committee.
Formal agreements, drafted among committees to stipulate their understanding of
jurisdictional boundaries, have been used in recent years. House parliamentarians, in
advising the Speaker, have generally considered themselves bound by such agreements
when they are supported by all the committees concerned and when the House, usually
by unanimous consent, has given its assent to such agreements.
In considering jurisdictional overlaps, a distinction needs to be made between
legislative and oversight jurisdiction. The former denotes the authority to report measures
to the full chamber; the latter, to review or investigate. Although oversight jurisdiction
may be the product of a specific legislative enactment, it also accrues when committees
accept responsibilities for broad topical areas. Hence, there are more likely to be broader
and more frequent overlaps in oversight jurisdiction than in legislative jurisdiction.
Legislative jurisdiction, however, occasions the majority of open conflicts between
Several other factors as well should be considered, although these are not formal or
acknowledged in rules or precedents.
First, when determining the appropriate referral of a bill, the Speaker and
parliamentarian may take into account the committee assignment and generally
acknowledged issue expertise of a measure’s sponsor. This is especially true if the
sponsor is a committee or subcommittee chairman or ranking minority member.
Second, the timing of a measure’s introduction may affect committee referral. For
example, if a Member introduces a bill following hearings on, or press coverage of, a
subject involving that Member, there could be an implicit understanding that the sponsor
wants the bill referred to the Member’s committee in order to legislate on what has
recently been studied.
Third, even if a committee did not originally consider a measure, representation from
its membership at the conference on the measure could be used to argue that the
committee has an implicit claim over the measure’s subject.
Fourth, on some occasions, jurisdiction over specific authorizing legislation has been
influenced or, arguably, specifically determined by which Appropriations Committee
subcommittee considers appropriations requests for the programs authorized. As well,
even though House rules forbid legislating in an appropriations bill, the Appropriations
Committee occasionally makes legislative policy in an annual, supplemental, or
continuing appropriations bill even though that policy has not been considered by the
appropriate authorizing committee. Relatedly, budget reconciliation instructions (which
in mandating budget cuts may contain programmatic changes) may possibly have an
influence on committee jurisdiction.
In 1974, with the adoption of the Committee Reform Amendments, the House
authorized the Speaker to refer measures to more than one committee, in a joint, split, or
sequential manner. In the 20 years following the onset of multiple referrals, they were
used frequently, often to acknowledge overlapping jurisdictional issues and often to avoid
choosing among committees’ jurisdictional prerogatives. Two results were to further
broaden jurisdictions and further fragment policy and program responsibility.
In 1995, with the rules changes adopted in the 104th Congress, the Speaker’s
authority to multiply refer measures was changed. The Speaker could no longer refer
measures jointly; he was authorized instead to designate a primary committee. Split and
sequential referrals were still allowed. Further, the Speaker could impose time limitations
on any committee receiving a referral.
In 2003, with the rules changes adopted in the 108th Congress, the Speaker was
authorized to refer measures to more than one committee without designation of a primary
committee under “exceptional circumstances.”