Committees: The most important not-understood aspect of Congress

When I first started working on what would become GovTrack six years ago, as a college sophomore who had up to that point zero interest in politics, I had no idea what congressional committees were all about. I don’t think they ever came up in any civics-related classes through High School. Really, we’re all lead to believe that what we can see — on C-SPAN and in the records of votes — that those things are actually where the action in Congress takes place. As it turns out, that’s pretty far from the truth.

It’s really no coincidence that C-SPAN airs basically the same camera angle all day. It’s not because the House and Senate camera operators are lazy. It’s because there’s no one else in the room besides the person talking (and the presiding officer and clerks, etc.). So what’s the camera guy supposed to show- a room full of some 500 empty chairs? Real debate doesn’t take place on the House and Senate floors. Nor are real outcomes the results of votes on legislation. By and large, bills don’t even come to a vote unless the outcome is clear beforehand.

The real legislating takes place off of the cameras, before votes, within committees. I don’t think that’s bad at all, mind you. Only, I wish committees got the attention that they deserve. Information on what the committees are actually doing is particularly difficult to get a handle on.

So now six years later, I still hardly know what committees do. They vote on things. They hold hearings. A bill is made or broken in committee. But how does that process work? Committees need to refocus their websites to make it clear to us everyday people what they are doing: what legislation they are considering, what their votes are on (in clear terms) and what the outcomes are, and what is happening to each bill assigned to them. An “amendment in the nature of a substitute” needs explaining, and needs to be followed up with what was changed, and why.

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