By Chris Micheli
Like the United States Congress, the California Legislature’s primary work is done by the nearly two dozen Senate committees and the more than 30 Assembly committees. These standing committees are comprised of a small number of Members of the Senate or Assembly that are charged with reviewing, debating and voting on the roughly 2,500 bills submitted annually between the two houses, as well as the thousands of amendments to these bills. The committees must complete their work prior to the bills’ consideration by the entire membership on the Floors of the two houses.
Pursuant to Article IV, Section 11 of the state constitution, “the Legislature or either house may by resolution provide for the selection of committees necessary for the conduct of its business, including committees to ascertain facts and make recommendations to the Legislature on a subject within the scope of legislative control.” Their committees between the two houses vary in their size from a small of 3 members to as many as over 30 members.
The scope of all these standing committees is defined by the rules of each house (i.e., the Assembly Standing Rules and the Senate Standing Rules) with a list of subject matters that are considered by each committee. There are a number of factors that are considered in naming members to specific committees, which is a role for the Assembly Speaker and the Senate Rules Committee. For example, previous experience prior to elected office, previous service on a committee, the legislator’s most recent occupation, education, training, and other factors help determine where a legislator will be assigned.
One misconception is that, like Congress, committee membership is based upon seniority. However, under Senate Rule 11, the Rules Committee must give consideration to seniority, preference and experience of senators, as well as give equal representation to all parts of the state, when making committee appointments. But seniority does not play as great a role in Sacramento as it does in Congress. The Assembly Rules do not provide anything similar.
All meetings of the Assembly and Senate committees are open and public, unless there is a reason for a closed session. Closed sessions are generally limited to those in which the committee considers the appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, or dismissal of a public officer or employee, to consider or hear complaints or charges brought against a Member of the Legislature or other public officer or employee, or to establish the classification or compensation of an employee of the Senate or Assembly.
Following a bill’s introduction in either the Assembly or Senate, the bill is referred by the respective Rules Committees to the appropriate policy committee, as well as a fiscal committee (called the Appropriations Committee in both houses) if the bill is keyed fiscal, where it may be scheduled for hearing by the committee’s chair. The committee hearing on the bill is the point at which the general public and interested parties are invited to testify in support of, or in opposition to, the bill. It is here, at the committee hearing, that many of the important policy questions are resolved by the committee members.
Some bills require hearings by more than one committee, in which case a committee or the house may re-refer the bill to another committee, which is called a “dual referral” or “double referred” by insiders. After a policy committee hearing, the vast majority of bills go to the fiscal committee, again, called the Appropriations Committee in both houses. When testimony is completed, the policy or fiscal committee makes its decision on the proposed legislation and reports its recommendation to the full house. Throughout the process, a bill may be amended and it is reprinted each time an amendment is adopted by either house.
With the volume of legislation that is introduced and considered, it is impossible for each Member of the Legislature to review in detail all of the changes, additions and deletions to state law that are proposed by bills. In the course of a regular 2-year session, for example, the Legislature will consider approximately 5,000 bills, in addition to numerous constitutional amendments and hundreds of resolutions. To cope with the multitude and the variety of the subject matters contained in these bills, it has been necessary to create and utilize a system of policy committees in both houses.
The total number of standing committees may fluctuate each two-year session, but generally averages between 20 and 30 total committees in each respective house. Assembly Committees are created by a House Resolution (HR), and the memberships are appointed by the Speaker. Senate Committees are created by a Senate Resolution (SR), with committee memberships appointed by the Senate Rules Committee.
The committees specialize in specific subject matter areas and are designed to treat the proposed legislation relating to their specialty. By referring the bills to a standing committee, it is possible to study, in depth, all of the bills which have been introduced and referred to that committee.
In addition, during the joint recesses of the Legislature, the standing and joint committees conduct hearings throughout the state. While they are not permitted to act upon bills during this period of time, they do elicit information and data leading to the eventual formulation of legislation. These informational hearings are important for developing future bills or analyzing proposed measures.
All of the standing committees are investigating committees as well and they are authorized to conduct oversight hearings relating to any subjects assigned to them by the respective Rules Committees or upon their own initiative. In that role, each standing committee of the Assembly and Senate is authorized to summon and subpoena witnesses, to require the production of papers, books, accounts, reports, documents, etc. However, no committee may issue a subpoena, nor may a committee require testimony under oath, without the prior approval of the respective Rules Committees.
Each committee may appoint a secretary (called a committee secretary in the Assembly and a committee assistant in the Senate) and employ clerical, legal and technical assistants (called committee consultants). Each standing committee of the Assembly and Senate may meet at the State Capitol and do all things that are necessary to enable the committee to exercise the powers and perform the duties that are granted to them by the Assembly and Senate Rules.
Chris Micheli is a registered lobbyist with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law in their Capital Lawyering Program.