HGov: Congressional Leadership

Congress is a fragmented institution. It has no single leader; rather, the House and Senate have separate leaders, neither of whom can presume to speak for the other chamber. The principal party leaders of Congress are the Speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. They share leadership power with committee and subcommittee chairpersons, who have influence on the policy decisions of their committee or subcommittee.

The main task of each house in Congress is to make laws. The committees of Congress perform most legislative activity. The majority party in both the House and Senate gets to select the leaders of that body, control the flow of legislative work, and appoint the chairs of all the committees. The Speaker of the House has great power presiding over House sessions.

Leadership in the Senate closely parallels leadership in the House, but the Senate has no Speaker. The vice president presides but cannot vote except to break a tie. The majority party leader steers the party’s bills through the Senate. The minority leader critiques the majority party’s bills and keeps his or her own party united. Senate leaders control the flow of bills to committees and to the floor.

Both the House and Senate depend upon committees to consider the thousands of bills that are proposed each session. Committees are the key power centers in Congress. Lawmakers in committees listen to supporters and opponents of a bill, work out compromises, and decide which bills will or will not have a chance to become law. Through public hearings and investigations, committees bring issues and problems to the public. Congress has four basic kinds of committees: (1) standing committees, each with several subcommittees that specialize in a subcategory; (2) select (or temporary) committees; (3) joint committees made up of House and Senate members; and (4) conference committees that resolve differing versions of a House and Senate bill.

Assignment to the “right” committee can help congressional careers, putting members in a position to act on bills important to their constituents, to influence national policies, and to influence other members in Congress. Party leaders in both the House and Senate have the job of assigning members to a limited number of standing committees and subcommittees. The chairpersons of standing committees are the most powerful people in Congress.

A law starts as a bill, which is introduced and sent to the appropriate committee for study, discussion, and review. Bills that survive committee review are put on one of the five House calendars. The House Rules Committee then decides whether to move the bill ahead, hold it back, or stop it completely.


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