House Committees: Assignment Process

House Committees: Assignment Process
Judy Schneider
Specialist on the Congress
Government and Finance Division
Committee assignments often determine the character of a Member’s career. They
are also important to the party leaders who organize the chamber and shape the
composition of the committees. House rules identify some procedures for making
committee assignments; Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus rules supplement
these House rules and provide more specific criteria for committee assignments.
Information on the number of, and limitations on, assignments is provided in CRS
Report 98-151, House Committees: Categories and Rules for Committee Assignments.
In general, pursuant to House rules, Representatives cannot serve on more than two
standing committees. In addition, both parties identify exclusive committees and
generally limit service on them; other panels are identified as nonexclusive or exempt
committees. House and party rules restrict Members’ service on the Budget, Intelligence,
and Standards of Official Conduct Committees to a limited number of terms.
Committee Sizes and Ratios
Traditionally, the respective party leaders, occasionally with input from committee
leaders, negotiate individual committee sizes and ratios prior to the post-general-election
early organization meetings, when the assignment process officially begins. Sizes are
determined prior to the start of the Congress, although they generally remain fairly
constant year after year. When the size of a committee is increased, it is usually done toth
accommodate individual Member requests for service on a particular panel. In the 110
Congress, the largest House committee has 75 members; the smallest has 10.
Ratios on committees generally reflect party strength in the chamber. However, it is
generally agreed that ratios are done in the aggregate, rather than on a committee-by-
committee basis, in part to retain a “working majority” on the more sought-after
committees, often the exclusive panels. In contrast to the general practice, one
committee, Standards of Official Conduct, has an equal number of majority and minority
members, while the Rules Committee has a ratio of 2:1, plus one, in favor of the majority.

Factors in Making Assignments
Both parties consider a variety of factors in making assignments, including seniority,
experience, background, ideology, election margin, state delegation support, leadership
support, as well as the special concerns of the Member’s district. Further, the leadership
often considers geographic balance in making assignments, with Members of the other
party not usually counted for such purposes. None of these factors, however, is usually
seen as having equal weight for each Member in each instance.
In addition, the rules of the party organizations and the House attempt to ensure an
equitable number of assignments for each Member and an equitable distribution of
assignments to important committees. However, the so-called “property norm” generally
allows returning Members to retain their seats on committees prior to allowing new
Members to seek their assignments. In addition, if sizes and ratios are dramatically
changed, each party might make exceptions to the property norm.
Party Organizations
Both Democrats and Republicans give the assignment function to a “steering
committee.” For both parties, the steering committee comprises the elected party
leadership, numerous Members elected by region from the party membership, and
Members appointed by the leadership. Representatives from specific classes — groups
of Members elected in a specific year — are also represented.
Each party Member has a representative on his or her party’s steering committee, and
one role of this representative is to advance the individual Member’s choices for
assignments. The steering committee for each party votes by secret ballot to arrive at
individual recommendations for assignments to standing committees and forwards those
recommendations to the full party conference or caucus. (Even recommendations for the
House Rules and House Administration Committees’ members, which are made by the
Speaker and minority leader, are confirmed by the full party conference.) Once ratified
by the Republican Conference or Democratic Caucus, the recommendations are forwarded
to the House, which votes on simple resolutions officially making the assignments.
Individual Member Rights
Democratic Caucus rules guarantee each Democratic Member assignment to either
an exclusive or nonexclusive committee. Further, if a Member’s regional representative
on the Democratic Steering Committee refuses to nominate the Member to the committee
of his or her choice, the Member may ensure consideration by sending a letter, signed by
half of his state delegation, to the chair of the Steering Committee. In addition, caucus
rules provide for a separate vote by the entire caucus on particular Steering Committee
recommendations if a vote is requested by 10 or more Members. Republican Conference
rules do not contain similar provisions.