committee

committee

[kuh-mit-ee]
committee, one or more persons appointed or elected to consider, report on, or take action on a particular matter. Because of the advantages of a division of labor, legislative committees of various kinds have assumed much of the work of legislatures in many nations. Standing committees are appointed in both houses of the U.S. Congress at the beginning of every session to deal with bills in the different specific classes. Important congressional committees include ways and means; appropriations; commerce; armed services; foreign relations; and judiciary. The number, but not the scope, of the committees was much reduced in 1946. Since then there has been a large increase in the number of subcommittees, which have become steadily more important.

Members of committees are in effect elected by caucuses of the two major parties in Congress; the majority party is given the chairmanship and majority on each committee, and chairmanships, as well as membership on important committees, are influenced by seniority, but seniority is no longer the sole deciding factor and others may override it. The presiding officer of either house may appoint special committees, including those of investigation, which have the power to summon witnesses and compel the submission of evidence. The presiding officers also appoint committees of conference to obtain agreement between the two houses on the content of bills of the same general character. The U.S. legislative committee system conducts most congressional business through its powers of scrutiny and investigation of government departments.

In France the constitution of the Fifth Republic permits each legislative chamber to have no more than six standing committees. Because these committees are large, unofficial committees have formed that do much of the real work of examining bills. As in the U.S. government, these committees are quite powerful because of their ability to delay legislation. In Great Britain devices such as committees of the whole are used in the consideration of money bills and there are large standing committees of the House of Commons, but committees have not been very important in the British legislature. Recently attempts have been made to form specialized committees.

See L. A. Froman, The Congressional Process (1967); G. Goodwin, Jr., The Little Legislatures (1970); Congressional Quarterly, Guide to Congress (3d ed. 1982).

In U.S. politics, an organization whose purpose is to raise and distribute campaign funds to candidates seeking political office. PACs rose to prominence after the Federal Election Campaign Act (1971) limited the amount of money any corporation, union, or private individual could give to a candidate. PACs were able to circumvent these limits by soliciting smaller contributions from a much larger number of individuals. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries the vast amounts of money raised by PACs greatly increased the cost of running for office and led to efforts to reform this method of financing campaigns.

Learn more about political action committee (PAC) with a free trial on Britannica.com.

Political body of the French Revolution that controlled France during the Reign of Terror. It was set up in April 1793 to defend France against its enemies, foreign and domestic. At first it was dominated by Georges Danton and his followers, but they were soon replaced by the radical Jacobins, including Maximilien Robespierre. Harsh measures were taken against alleged enemies of the Revolution, the economy was placed on a wartime basis, and mass conscription was undertaken. Dissension within the committee contributed to the downfall of Robespierre in July 1794, after which it declined in importance.

Learn more about Committee of Public Safety with a free trial on Britannica.com.

A committee (some of which are titled instead as a "Commission", or other terms discussed below in ) is a type of small deliberative assembly that is usually intended to remain subordinate to another, larger deliberative assembly—which when organized so that action on committee requires a vote by all its entitled members, is called the "Committee of the Whole". Committees often serve several different functions:

  • Governance: in organizations considered too large for all the members to participate in decisions affecting the organization as a whole, a committee (such as a Board of Directors or "Executive Committee") is given the power to make decisions, spend money, or take actions. Some or all such powers may be limited or effectively unlimited. For example of the later case, the Board of directors can frequently enter into binding contracts and make decisions which once taken or made, can't be taken back or undone under the law.

  • Coordination: individuals from different parts of an organization (for example, all senior vice presidents) might meet regularly to discuss developments in their areas, review projects that cut across organizational boundaries, talk about future options, etc. Where there is a large committee, it's common to have smaller committees with more specialized functions - for example, Boards of Directors of large corporations typically have an (ongoing) audit committee, finance committee, compensation committee, etc. Large academic conferences are usually organized by a co-ordinating committee drawn from the relevant professional body.

  • Research and recommendations: committees are often formed to do research and make recommendations on a potential or planned project or change. For example, an organization considering a major capital investment might create a temporary working committee of several people to review options and make recommendations to upper management or the Board of Directors. Such committees are typically dissolved after issuing recommendations (often in the form of a final report).
  • Project management: while it is generally considered poor management to give operational responsibility to a committee to actually manage a project, this is not unknown. The problem is that no single person can be held accountable for poor performance of the committee, particularly if the chairperson of the committee is seen as a facilitator.

Official and unofficial types

Committees, both permanent and ad hoc (unofficial), appear both in representative democracies and in non-democratic structures. They may bear titles such as Commission, Board, Council, Presidium, or Politburo. Unofficial committees often get unflattering labels such as junta, camarilla or cabal. In the art of organizing people to perform for a common task, committees fulfill .

Common committee procedures

  • It is common for a chairperson to organize a committee meeting through an agenda, which is usually distributed in advance.
  • The chairperson is responsible for running meetings: keeping the discussion on the appropriate subject, recognizing members (calling on them to speak) [often omitted in smaller committees], and calling for votes after a debate has taken place [formal voting is normally only done in committees involved in governance]. Governance committees often have formal processes (for example, they might follow Roberts Rules of Order); other types of committees typically operate informally, with the chairperson being responsible for deciding how formal the committee processes will be.
  • Minutes, a record of the discussion and decisions of the meeting, are often taken by a person designated as the secretary of the committee; they may be legally obligatory (again, typically for governance committees, especially boards of directors).
  • For committees that meet regularly, the minutes of the most recent meeting are often circulated to committee members before the next meeting, and are available to the membership of the whole.
  • Committees may meet on a regular basis, often weekly or yearly, or meetings may be called irregularly as the need arises. During an emergency, a committee may meet more than once per day, or sit in permanent session, as, for example, ExComm (the President's Executive Committee) did during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Subcommittees

A committee that is a subset of a larger committee is called a subcommittee.

Where the larger group has a name other than "committee" - for example, "Board" or "Commission", the smaller group(s) would usually be called committee(s), not subcommittee(s), and might go by an entirely different name, or substitute "Commission" for "Committee". For example in the sciences, the "International Commission on Stratigraphy" (ICS) a standing working committee is doing organizational work establishing uniform naming and benchmarks in the geologic record and timeline since 1974, all under the auspices of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). It is technically the "International Stratigraphy Committee" (ISC), which has limited executive committee powers to empanel other subcommittees (also called commissions) to resolve certain matters involving the Geologic time scale—it's deliberations and those of its subcommittees must be adopted by the IUGS which meets in a committee-of-the-whole or Congress, every four years or so to deliberate on the subcommittee recommendations and officially adopt or not-adopt such.

From the foregoing, it can easily be seen subcommittees can generally be classified further by the adjectives: "Executive", "Standing", and "Working":Executive committees

A subcommittee which has well defined executive powers usually spelled out in the charter or by-laws and which meets frequently to manage the affairs and further the purposes of a organization or entity. These are commonly empaneled as well when an organization has a large Board of Directors such as an international labor union, large corporations (with thousands of stock holders) or national and international organizations. A Board of directors is itself a kind of Executive committee established by the charter and by-laws of the entity and elected by the overall franchised membership. For organizations where the Board of Directors is large - say 20 people or more - it's common to have an Executive Committee of the Board—a executive subcommittee of Board members, which is authorized to make some decisions on behalf of the entire Board.Standing committees
A committee established by an official and binding vote providing for its scope and powers. Most governmental legislative subcommittees are standing committees, which by another name is a permanent committee. Standing committees meet on a regular or irregular basis dependent upon their enabling act, and retain any power or oversight claims originally given them until subsequent official actions of the committee of the whole (changes to law or by-laws) disbands the committee or changes their duties and powers.Working committees
A committee established accomplish a particular task or to oversee an ongoing area in need of control or oversight. Many such are research or co-ordination committees in type or purpose, and can be temporary. Some are ad hoc (unofficial), such as a sub-group of a larger society with a particular area of interest which decides to meet and discuss matters pertaining to their interests. For example a group of astronomers might get together ad hoc to discuss how to get the larger society to address Near earth objects; A subgroup of engineers and scientists of a large project's development team could meet ad hoc to solve some particular issue with offsetting considerations and trade-offs. The term when used officially, generally means a group with specific duties and related authority, so when encountered in official contexts subsumes all other official types of committees. The International Commission on Stratigraphy and it's subcommittees (commissions in name) are working committees that meet both far more regularly and more frequently both in deliberation and co-ordination furthering the needs of the IUGS (which regularly schedules meetings only every fourth year) and the larger scientific community. They fulfill a

A basic need

Committees are a necessary aspect of organizations of any significant size (say, more than 15 or 20 people). They keep the number of participants manageable; with larger groups, either many people do not get to speak (and feel left out), or discussions are quite lengthy (and many participants find them duplicative and often boring).

Cross-field reasons

Committees are a way to formally draw together people of relevant expertise from different parts of an organization who otherwise would not have a good way to share information and coordinate actions. They may have the advantage of widening viewpoints and sharing out responsibilities. They can also be empaneled with experts to recommend actions by the committee of the whole in matters that require specialized knowledge or technical judgment. A "Defense" or "Banking" subcommittee in legislative bodies or the many International science commissions such as the ICS mentioned above, or a local "board of health" are or may be such.

Disadvantages

Their disadvantages appear in the possibilities for procrastination, undesirable compromises in order to build consensus, and groupthink, where (valid) objections or disconfirming evidence is either not voiced or is ignored. Moreover, the need to schedule a meeting, get enough committee members together to have a quorum, and debate until a majority agrees on a course of action, can result in undesirable delays in taking action. (A common joke, in organizations, is that when someone doesn't want to make an unpopular decision, he/she creates a committee to study the question.)

Conference committee

Standing committees

A standing committee is a subunit of a political or deliberative body established in a permanent fashion to aid the parent assembly in accomplishing its duties. A standing committee is usually granted jurisdiction over a particular area of legislation by the parent body.

Under the laws of the United States of America, a standing committee is a Congressional committee permanently authorized by United States House of Representatives and United States Senate rules. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 greatly reduced the number of committees, and set up the legislative committee structure still in use today, as modified by authorized changes via the orderly mechanism of rules changes.

Executive standing committees

In the People's Republic of China, the "Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China" is the supreme decision-making body.

Standing Committees in legislatures

The phrase is used in the legislatures of the following countries:

Parliamentary committees

In the parliamentary procedure take part:

See also

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