House Committee System: Jurisdiction and Referral Reform Options
CRS Report for Congress
House Committee System: Jurisdiction and
Referral Reform Options
Judy Schneider and Paul Rundquist
Specialists on the Congress
Government and Finance Division
On January 7, 2003, the House created a Select Committee on Homeland Security
with legislative and oversight jurisdiction over the newly created Department of
Homeland Security. The select committee is also mandated to study House rules,
including Rule X, as they apply to homeland security matters, and to recommend
changes to the House Rules Committee no later than September 30, 2004. This report
briefly addresses jurisdiction and referral reform options. It will be updated if events
The committee system is central to the legislative process. Committees are the initial
point of referral for measures introduced and often the place where the fate of a measure
is determined, in part because most measures must be reported by committee before they
can be considered by the House. Notwithstanding changes which have occurred over
time1, the Select Committee on Homeland Security has been charged with conducting a
review of House rules, including Rule X, as they apply to homeland security matters, and
recommending changes to the Rules Committee no later than September 30, 2004.2
No characteristic of the committee system is more critical than its jurisdictional
structure. Critics charge that despite changes in recent years, Congress has not
sufficiently shifted the system’s focus toward newly emerged policy areas. Questions have
been raised concerning duplication, overlap, or neglect of some issues, and a perceived
impediment to policymaking.
1 For a history of House reforms since 1946, see CRS Report RL31835, Reorganization of the
House of Representatives: Recent Reform Efforts, by Judy Schneider, Christopher M. Davis, and
2 For additional information, see CRS Report RS21360, Department of Homeland Security:
Options for House and Senate Committee Organization, by Judy Schneider and Paul Rundquist.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Related to the issue of jurisdiction is the committee referral process. Authority is
vested in the Speaker to make bill referrals and to identify a primary committee if a
measure is to be referred to more than one panel. In the 108th Congress, pursuant to
House Rule XII, clause 2, the Speaker was given authority to refer a measure without
designating a primary committee under “extraordinary circumstances.” The Speaker also
has the authority to impose time limits on committees receiving a referral, whether a
primary committee is designated or not.
Advocates of rules changes believe it necessary to alter committee jurisdictions to
facilitate comprehensive policymaking, to reflect contemporary policy issues in
jurisdictional language, and to simplify the referral process. Alternatively, others believe
it unnecessary or unfeasible to change current jurisdictions because policy issues cannot
be neatly compartmentalized.
Arguments in favor of altering committee jurisdictions include the following:
!Jurisdictions may be outdated, fragmented, and overlapping.
!Contemporary problems and issues, such as homeland security, are not
reflected in jurisdictional language, and are divided among too many
panels to allow comprehensive policymaking.
!Congress’s need to rely on select committees offers evidence that current
jurisdictional arrangements are inadequate.
Arguments against altering committee jurisdictions include the following:
!Overlap of jurisdictions is impossible to eliminate, in part because
contemporary policy issues are broad, have diverse dimensions, and
cannot be neatly defined.
!Policymaking problems stem largely from difficult, interwoven national
problems and not from jurisdictional arrangements for addressing them.
!Any reduction in panels along with jurisdictional change could deprive
Members and interest groups of multiple avenues for influencing
!Although the House has used select committees to handle recent
homeland security issues, the House now generally relies less on select
committees than it did during the past several decades.
Proposals relating to jurisdiction and referral changes can be seen as sweeping,
incremental, or minimal. Some have suggested a system of numerous committees with
relatively narrow jurisdictions, while others have advocated having a few committees with
relatively broad jurisdiction. Proposals to make House and Senate committee systems
parallel, or to correlate them with federal agency responsibilities or budget functions, have
also been put forward. Some have suggested matching the jurisdictions of authorizing
panels with those of the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittees. Some have
suggested merely clarifying Rule X by making the terms more explicit or by incorporating
new concepts not now in the rule. Some have also called for codifying in the rules
informal precedents and agreements between committees. Still others have recommended
making Rule X reflect programmatic responsibilities by including specific references to
particular laws or programs rather than the terminology currently used. Some are merely
seeking a more definitive listing of subject responsibilities among committees.
These options are illustrative, not the only ones available, and they are not mutually
exclusive. Underlying all proffered options, however, is the assumption that institutional
change is indeed needed, that strict adherence to existing rules and procedures is
insufficient and unrealistic. Not all Members agree.
Some House Members and outside observers believe that structural change is not
necessary. For them, the absence of a policy consensus on major issues among House
Members slows legislative action more than does any kind of organizational inadequacy.
Finally, possible jurisdictional realignment and the current House bill referral process
are integrally related. Some Members contend that, had the 1974 rules change permitting
multiple referrals been accompanied by a proposed comprehensive realignment of
committee jurisdictions, current referral problems and calls for jurisdictional change
might have been lessened. Others note, however, that the House has undertaken major
jurisdictional and structural changes in its committee system, most recently in 1995; they
believe action now is less urgent.
Options for Realigning Committee Jurisdictions
The following section briefly notes various options that have been suggested,
currently or in the recent past, for altering House committee jurisdictions. The primary
arguments for and against each approach are noted. The list below is illustrative of the
range of ideas and approaches under consideration. Additionally, some advocates of
jurisdictional change might want two or more approaches combined, depending upon the
policy issues to be addressed in a particular reorganization scheme.
Clarify Existing Language Without Shifting Jurisdictions. Clarification
could eliminate ambiguous and unclear rule language and replace outdated terms with
more modern ones. Current referral practices, precedents, and agreements between
committees could be written into the rules.
On the other hand, clarification would not necessarily reflect all current issues in rule
language and reduce jurisdictional overlap and competition. Neater jurisdictions might
not get at the heart of the problem, and could deny Members the opportunity to explore
different approaches to policy problems between committees.
Extensive Jurisdictional Realignment. Changes could eliminate the most
glaring policy overlaps and consolidate jurisdiction in a number of key areas, such as
homeland security. No committees would be eliminated, and jurisdictions could be
Changes would not necessarily consolidate all fragmented and overlapping policy
areas and could create others. In addition, the greater number of committees affected by
jurisdictional realignment, the greater is the likelihood that a coalition of Members who
opposed different reform proposals could be assembled to defeat a major reform plan.
Numerous Committees with Narrow Jurisdictions.Narrowly focused panels
could create committees better balanced in terms of workload and policy attractiveness,
permit more in-depth attention to policy issues, and lessen the chances that issues lose
priority on a committee’s agenda due to competing demands.
Narrowly focused panels could exacerbate the workload, scheduling, and assignment
concerns related to numerous committees. For example, Members might not be willing
to serve only on two committees if committees have reduced areas of policy concern.
Few Committees with Broad Jurisdictions. This option would create
jurisdictions around broad national problems. Committees would be more equal in
breadth, workload, and policy attractiveness. As such, the policymaking process could
be streamlined and the number of committee assignments would be reduced. To some
degree, rules might also be changed to have a greater number of Members serve only on
Too few committees with too much jurisdiction might deny issues the attention they
deserve. With excessive consolidation of committees, subcommittees might proliferate,
further decentralizing policymaking. Subcommittee proliferation has occurred before, for
example, after 1946 when the House converted more than 50 committees into 16 more
broadly focused committees.
Jurisdictions Based on Budget Functions. Jurisdictions would be defined
more in programmatic than topical language. In such a situation, the number of
committees would be reduced; workload among committees would be more equal; and
the House and Senate would have parallel systems if both chambers adopted such a
Budget terminology was not written to be jurisdictional language and does not reflect
contemporary policy issues. If both chambers adopted a budget function-based system,
the House and Senate would not have flexibility in devising their own committee system.
Jurisdictions Parallel Between Authorizing and Appropriations
Committees. Under this option, the jurisdictional alignment current among the 13
Appropriations subcommittees would serve as the basis for realigning legislative
jurisdictions. This plan would have the merit of incorporating a legislative management
structure with which most Members are familiar from appropriations bills. Alternatively,
attention could be focused on bringing the jurisdictions of the Appropriations
subcommittees into closer alignment with the jurisdictions of the authorizing committees.
The alignment among the Appropriations subcommittees might not be defensible for
an authorization structure. Most Appropriations subcommittees combine agency or
function funding in an effort to balance out inherently unrelated issues. For example, the
Departments of State, Commerce, Justice, and Judiciary may be an appropriate mix of
agencies and activities for purposes of an appropriations bill. However, combining such
diverse subjects into one authorizing committee might make comprehensive legislative
and oversight initiatives difficult. Similarly, some might question retaining “independent
agencies” in a committee responsible for HUD; it could be argued that independent
agencies more appropriately should be transferred to other relevant legislative
committees. This approach could be seen as a radical departure from the current
committee system, because only the Agriculture, Armed Services, and (to some degree)
International Relations Committees would remain in something approaching their current
forms. Finally, this option would bring a major reduction in the number of House
committees, forcing many Members to alter the policy areas with which they are most
Jurisdictions Parallel Between House and Senate.Parallel systems could
facilitate inter-chamber coordination at all stages of policymaking and might help during
the conference stage of the process.
The size of the House compared to the Senate, and the House’s greater reliance on
its committees, might necessitate a more extensive House realignment if the House
adapted its organization to the Senate’s. However, the Senate has not acted lately on
joint or parallel efforts (for example, the House proposal, H.Con.Res. 190, to study the
need for joint rules and procedures).
Jurisdictions to Correspond with Executive Branch Structure. This
approach might improve inter-branch relations, facilitate comprehensive oversight of the
executive branch, reduce duplicative appearances by executive branch witnesses, and
enhance public understanding of the policy process.
Matching committees with executive entities might be problematic, especially in
determining which entities would be reflected in the committee structure. For example,
independent agencies, government corporations, and other structures do not generally fit
within the purview of Cabinet departments. The executive branch is not necessarily
optimally organized, and whatever organizational problems effect the executive branch
could be transferred to a committee system that mirrors it. Finally, if an executive
department and a parallel committee become too closely connected, energetic oversight
might be inhibited.
Minimal Jurisdictional Realignment. Instead of a more comprehensive change
in House committee jurisdictions and structures, a more narrowly focused change could
be undertaken. For example, a new standing Committee on Homeland Security could be
created with some or all jurisdiction relating to that topic moved from the House
committees that currently hold that jurisdiction to the new panel. These jurisdictional
changes might also accompany a selected group of additional changes. For example, a
committee or group of committees having relatively narrow policy jurisdictions or small
workloads could be consolidated into larger relevant panels. The end result might be the
creation of a new homeland security committee as part of an overall reduction in the
number of House committees.
Small jurisdiction realignments are nearly as contentious as proposals for a
comprehensive realignment. Although only one or a few subjects are involved in the
realignment, the policy interests of many House committees could be affected by the
proposal. This is especially true in the area of homeland security where many committees
have, or claim to have, a legitimate concern for parts of homeland security legislation.
Even if the jurisdictional problems relating to homeland security were solved, a number
of other fragmented policy areas among House committees might be left unaddressed.
Declarations of Jurisdictional Primacy. House committee jurisdictions could
be revised to grant a committee principal or primary policy responsibility for a subject,
without necessarily removing related policy areas from the jurisdiction of other
committees. For example, in 1980, the House renamed the Interstate and Foreign
Commerce Committee the Committee on Energy and Commerce and assigned to it new
responsibility for measures dealing with “national energy policy generally.” However,
the House left largely untouched the major energy policy jurisdictions assigned to the then
Interior and Insular Affairs Committee (now called the Committee on Resources) and the
Committee on Science and Technology (now called the Committee on Science). Written
agreements among the three committees delineated the jurisdictional boundaries among
them. With regard to homeland security jurisdiction (or other complex contemporary
policy issues), a similar designation could be made, setting aside the question of a more
Opponents of this solution suggest that the 1980 reform was largely symbolic and
cosmetic. On contentious issues of energy policy, the three committees often pursued
different priorities, arguably detracting from House efforts to enact comprehensive energy
legislation. However, supporters of the “1980 type changes” claim that enactment of
comprehensive energy legislation would have been extraordinarily difficult regardless of
the jurisdictional arrangements among House committees. The Senate had, by then,
largely unified its energy jurisdiction in one committee and was not significantly more
productive in moving energy policy questions than was the House.
Arguments Against Committee System Change
The options discussed above respond to an interest in the House membership that
favors restructuring of the House committee process. This belief may be limited in that,
traditionally, Members and outside observers support the concept of reorganization in the
abstract. Support lessens markedly when concrete proposals are offered and the benefits
and disadvantages of a specific reform can be evaluated. There may be some benefit in
allowing more time to pass before the House decides on additional committee reforms.
Its system has been revised substantially in recent years: the abolition of long-time select
committees in 1993, the abolition of three standing committees and related jurisdictional
realignment in 1995, the recodification of House rules in 1997, the realignment of
commerce and banking jurisdiction in 2001, and the ad hoc arrangements for handling
homeland security in 2002 and 2003.
Others may claim that the House and its Speaker now possess sufficient authority to
handle problems in the committee system, without resorting to a major change in the
rules. The Speaker’s flexible authority in making bill referrals can force legislative
action. The ability of the House to establish ad hoc committees has once again been used
with regard to homeland security. Use of select committees could be continued until the
House is more sure about the long-term direction homeland security legislation will take.
Even more informal processes, such as leadership task forces, might permit the
development of comprehensive policy solutions, regardless of any inadequacies in the
House’s committee structure.