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Steering Committees


STEERING COMMITTEES are committees frequently found in legislatures and generally concerned with such matters as the scheduling of legislation. In the U.S. Congress they are party committees, and as such perform a number of functions. In some cases they may be involved in the formulation of party tactics and positions for particular bills. In the Senate, both the Republican and Democratic Parties established such committees in the late nineteenth century, and each prepared a legislative schedule when its party was the majority party. In the late 1940s both parties assigned such scheduling duties to their newly created policy committees. The Republican steering committee was displaced, but the Democrats reconstituted their steering committee as a committee on committees, responsible for assigning party members to standing committees. In the House, both parties established such committees in the twentieth century to assist the leaders in formulating strategy. For a short time in the 1920s the Republican Steering Committee dominated the House. In 1949 it was renamed the Policy Committee to act as an advisory body for the Republican leaders. The House Democrats established such a committee in the 1930s, but it has met only infrequently and has had no great impact on party decisions.

Steering committees took on far greater importance in the 1970s. In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, congressional rules underwent substantial reform. Traditionally, committee chairs enjoyed almost dictatorial power over the committees they headed. In the 1970s, however, new rules put forth a partial democratization of the committee system, in that the respective committee chairs were forced to share at least a degree of power with ranking members of each committee. As part of these reforms, the Democratic majority in the House and Senate gave to steering committees the committee assignment function formerly exercised by the members of the Ways and Means Committee. Consequently, steering commit-tees began to play a more active role in party decision making. Within both the Republican and Democratic Parties, steering committees have become the scene of intraparty jockeying for committee assignments. Under the House and Senate rules, the majority party decides committee assignments for its members, and the minority party decides committee assignments for its members. Thus, with a large number of members competing for a relatively small number of key committee assignments, the parties' respective steering committees take on tremendous importance within the Republican and Democratic caucuses. Even for new members, who lack the seniority to head the most powerful committees, steering committees are very important. Assignment to a powerful committee, even at a junior rank, affords the representative or senator prestige and political capital. Not surprisingly, therefore, steering committees have emerged as an important aspect of the legislative process.


Redman, Eric. The Dance of Legislation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Reid, Thomas R. Congressional Odyssey: The Saga of a Senate Bill. San Francisco: Freeman, 1980.

Smith, Stephen S. Call to Order: Floor Politics in the House and Senate. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1989.

DaleVinyard/a. g.

See alsoDelegation of Powers ; Rules of the House .

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