Securing a Committee Assignment
In Congress’ first years, the House frequently created committees on a case-by-case basis. Often a committee was formed to work on a bill and then disbanded once the bill had been reported to the House. As Congress wrestled with ever more complicated issues, however, it created permanent (or standing) committees that specialized in different policies.
Committee assignments can shape a Member’s tenure in Congress, and it can take some effort to secure a spot on a committee that deals with issues relevant to a Member's district. Representatives seek posts on committees with jurisdictions in areas in which they have expertise or that support the interests of their districts. The authority to assign committee seats, a powerful tool, has changed over the years.
Representative Ron Dellums of California describes his experience in obtaining his assignment on the Armed Services Committee when he was first elected in the 1970s.
Speaker Cannon’s Appointments
Documentation of Speaker Joe Cannon’s handling of committee assignments in the early 20th century came to light when a trunk of documents was found stashed in a storage room in the Cannon House Office Building in 1994. The handwritten list of committee vacancies, with a column of how many places “might be taken from the minority within precedent,” attest to his priorities and iron-fisted approach to leadership. Letters directly requesting assignments for particular Members show Cannon’s power to help or hinder a Representative’s career.
The powerful authority to assign Members to committees has changed over the years. For much of the nineteenth century the Speaker of the House determined each committee roster. By the twentieth century the parties controlled that process, making assignments from their respective memberships.