One of the most visible and enduring features of congress is its committee system. From hearings to investigations to legislative activity, committees are the congressional darlings of the mass media. And considering the central role that committees play in modern-day lawmaking and oversight, there is little wonder why they garner so much attention. 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 does so 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 2). 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 put into place. Moreover, the leadership of the internally divided Democratic majority usually preferred to defer to committees rather than risk open divisions on the House and Senate floor. In fact, prescriptive norms of deference to committees and senior committee leaders were articulated by leaders to bolster the power of committees.