The Committee to which legislation is referred based on the bill’s primary subject matter.
Strangers in the Night
Federal legislation falls into one of two categories: authorizations, which details the policies and funding levels of federal programs; and appropriations, which provides the actual funding for those activities. While appropriations legislation is referred to the House or Senate Appropriations Committee, authorization legislation can be referred to one of over 20 committees in each chamber. Where legislation will be referred, or the “committee of jurisdiction,” is based on rules set forth by the House and Senate.
Referrals may also be defined by precedent or agreements between and among committees. The Speaker also has discretion to make an “initial additional referral” to multiple committees at the time of introduction or after the original committee has reported the bill. The latter is termed a “sequential” referral. In the Senate, multiple committee referrals can be made through a unanimous consent agreement or by a motion jointly filed by the Majority and Minority leaders.
Determining the committee of jurisdiction is not always straightforward because House and Senate rules only cover broad policy areas, not specific programs or agencies. As a result, multiple committees may claim jurisdiction over a single piece of legislation. For example, Homeland Security legislation is notoriously complicated because the US Department of Homeland Security, formed following the September 11 terrorist attacks, reports to dozens of different congressional committees and subcommittees.
In the Senate, the committee of jurisdiction is the committee governing the “predominant subject of the bill.” This means the Senate Finance Committee gets jurisdiction over any legislation containing revenue provisions, even bills that might seem unrelated to the Committee. For example, it is the Senate Finance Committee—not the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—that has jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid matters.
Committee overlap on issues can cause additional confusion. To make your head explode, the House Ways and Means Committee shares Medicare and Medicaid with the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The latter oversees “foreign commerce,” while House Foreign Affairs oversees “international economic policy,” and House Ways and Means oversees “reciprocal trade agreements.” Yikes!
All or Nothing at All
The concept of committees of jurisdiction is especially important now as Congress prepares to consider the second piece of President Biden’s infrastructure agenda, which focuses on “human infrastructure” priorities like elder care, education, and climate change. These goals have been put forth in a budget resolution, priming it to pass through Congress utilizing a process called reconciliation with Democrat-only votes.
The budget resolution provides instructions to the committees on their overall funding levels, and nothing in the resolution text limits committees’ jurisdictions. But complicated jurisdictional questions are already in play. For example, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committees have been allocated vastly different funding levels due to jurisdictional differences between the two.
As House Committees begin their consideration of their portions of the human infrastructure package over the next two weeks, committee jurisdiction will play a key role in how the legislation gets crafted and where the money flows.