One of the most visible and enduring features of congress is its committee system. Committees – whether it is a prominent investigating committee, a committee hearing from a prominent administration official or celebrity, or even a partisan exchange between legislators – are probably second only to floor action on a major issue for their coverage in the mass media. While little of the attention given to committees concerns meetings at which real decisions are made, committees are very important to congressional policy making. Most important legislation originates in a standing committee, most of the details of legislation are approved in committee, and standing committee members usually dominate floor and conference action. When legislation dies, it usually dies in committee.
The significance of standing committees in the policy-making process varies over time. In the mid-twentieth century, committees were often described as nearly autonomous policy makers. (See Chapter 3). The tremendous growth in government and power of the presidency that characterized the New Deal and World War II era of the 1930s and 1940s led Congress to reevaluate the way it did business. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 reduced the number of standing committees, provided detailed, written committee jurisdictions, guaranteed a professional staff for each committee, and directed committees to conduct oversight of executive agencies. As a result of the 1946 act, most of the key features of the modern committee system were in place.