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I gather that each committee has an assigned number of major/minor party spaces, but what is the selection process for the members who serve on each committee in the Senate/house committees?

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    I think it's like middle school gym class.
    – user1530
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 5:57

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Unlike many other features of the government, Congressional committees are not specified by the Constitution or law. They are entirely a product of the party system (although legislators have created House/Senate rules regarding them).

There are also several kinds of committees.

Standing Committees

Standing committees are "normal" committees. They exist pretty much every session and originate laws.

Prior to each session, leadership from both parties meet to determine how large each committee will be, and what number of Republicans and Democrats will appear in each. Generally each party is represented proportionally.

Each party will have its own internal 'committee on committees' to make committee assignments. Each legislator makes their preferences known, and the committee makes these assignments. The assignments are then approved by the party. Finally, committee assignments must be passed as a resolution in their chamber (so Senate committee assignments require a Senate resolution).

There can be quite a lot of politics here. Legislators generally want to be on committees that are important to their constituents. Party leadership may want to give high visibility positions to loyal party members. Members of the committee on committees may attempt to reward their own supporters within their party.

Sources:

  • FAQ from the Clerk of the House of Representatives
  • Congressional Research Service paper on Senate Committee Assignment processes

Special, Select, and Joint Committees

Special and select committees are established by Congressional acts. Typically the act will specify the composition of the committee. Joint committees have members from both chambers.

The party nomination/approval process generally still happens, as long as the committee continues to exist. In these cases party leadership typically have much more influence. These committees are often more strategic than standing committees, and their more ad-hoc nature means there are fewer rules regarding them.

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