Committees on Foreign Affairs and Relations: Duties and Differences

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WASHINGTON D.C. – The two major committees within Congress that focus on ending global poverty and hunger are the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Due to the fact that these committees come from different chambers of Congress, they differ in their practices, goals and methods of passing bills through.

Each committee also has different roles in the fight against global poverty. Congress’ committees on foreign affairs divide up the organizations and duties that each must create legislation for, and together, form the foreign relations system of the United States.

The Committees on Foreign Affairs in the House and Senate

The House Foreign Affairs Committee debates and evaluates bills that that impact the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Peace Corps, the United Nations, the enforcement of the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act. It also focuses on the promotion of democracy, peacekeeping and international development.

A few of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s major areas of jurisdiction that aid in the fight against poverty include economic, military, technical and humanitarian assistance to foreign countries, foreign loans, international activities of the American National Red Cross, international law as it relates to foreign policy and the International Monetary Fund.

Congress’ committees on foreign affairs may be different as far as their duties, jurisdictions and areas of interest, but how different are they regarding formation, passing bills and effectiveness?

To find out more about the inner workings of Congress’ committees on foreign affairs, The Borgen Project reached out to Breanna Wright, a professor of political science at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. Professor Wright’s areas of expertise are in American politics, specifically Congress, election laws, voting behavior and political psychology.

The Borgen Project: What is the process of forming Congress’ committees on foreign affairs?

Breanna Wright: There are no significant differences in how committee membership is decided for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In both the Senate and the House, committee membership is determined in very similar ways. In general, the partisan balance of committees reflects the partisan balance of each chamber. Each party creates a Committee on Committees, which is a committee that is created to determine and assign committee membership. After the Committee on Committees assigns members to each committee, the membership assignment made by the Committee on Committees is voted on by their respective party. After the membership assignments are approved by each party, the membership assignments are voted on by the full chamber.

TBP: What is the basic process for the formation of bills within each committee? How likely are they to be passed through?

BW: After a bill gets assigned to a committee, the legislation typically goes to a subcommittee before being considered by the full committee. In the subcommittee, the legislation is marked up and voted on. Once it is voted out of the subcommittee, it goes to the full committee for a vote. In general, most legislation does not make it out of committees. Thousands of bills were assigned to committees in the Senate’s last congressional session and only approximately 500 bills made it out of the committees.

TBP: After bills are passed through each committee, what is the next step?

BW: In the House, after legislation is voted out of a committee, it goes to the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee sets the rules for debate (e.g., how much time is allowed for debate, whether amendments are allowed). Once the rules for legislation are set, the bill can be placed on the legislative calendar and scheduled for debate and vote.

In the Senate, after legislation is voted out of a committee, it is placed on the Senate’s Calendar of Business. There are two options for legislation to reach the Senate floor: through the majority leader via a motion that the Senate proceed to consideration of the bill or through unanimous consent. In general, the Senate prefers to bring legislation to the floor for consideration via unanimous consent due to the threat of a filibuster.

TBP: How much power do committees have over congressional decision making, generally?

BW: Committees have a significant amount of power over congressional decision making. Committees determine what legislation even reaches the House or Senate floor. Committees also have a significant amount of say in what a given piece of legislation contains, although the content of legislation can be modified significantly through the amendment process.


Congress’ committees on foreign affairs are not only in charge of a great deal of legislation that can help end global poverty, but are also instrumental in ensuring that these important bills reach each chamber’s floor for consideration. Thus, these committees are a vital piece of the United States’ role in the international effort to promote peace and prosperity around the globe.

– Theresa Marino
Photo: Flickr

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Theresa Marino

Theresa writes for The Borgen Project from Commack, NY. Her academic interests include English, Journalism and political science. Theresa has been a freelance writer for a New York City newspaper for the past few months and a freelance artist since she was thirteen years old!

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