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.
A Look at Legislative Committee Rules
Each standing committee of the Senate (there are 21 of them) and Assembly (there are 32 of them) operate under the Joint Rules of the Legislature, as well as the Standing Rules of the Senate and Assembly, respectively. Each standing committee may adopt rules governing the operation of their committees. These committee rules set forth the procedures and guidelines that are used to conduct the business of the legislative committee.
These rules set forth the date, time and location of the committee hearings and that a majority of the committee’s member constitute a quorum, which allows the committee to officially operate. Most committees’ rules contain the following provisions:
Committee Worksheets — When a bill (or constitutional amendment or resolution) is referred to the committee, then the committee staff provides the bill’s author a worksheet (“Background Information Request”) to be completed as part of the preparation of the Committee analysis.
Setting Bills – As a general rule, no bill may be set, nor file notice published, until it has been referred to a committee. Once referred, the Committee may set the bill for any available hearing date, at its discretion. Recall that no bill may be heard or acted upon until, after its introduction, it has been in print for 30 days. This rule may be suspended concurrently with the suspension of the requirement of Section 8(a) of Article IV of the California Constitution.
Notices – A bill of first reference being heard in the Committee must be noticed in the Daily File at least four days prior to a hearing. Otherwise, notice must be published in the Daily File two days prior to the hearing. This requirement can be waived by a majority vote of the Assembly.
Three Set Limit – A bill may be set for hearing in a Committee only three times. A bill is considered “set” when it has been noticed in the Daily File for one or more days. If the author postpones the hearing of a bill, or submits amendments causing the hearing to be rescheduled, such action may count as a set. If the Committee postpones the hearing on the bill, such action does not count as a set. This requirement may be suspended by approval of the Rules Committee and a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the Assembly.
Committee Analyses — A Committee analysis is required for every bill. Analyses are generally made available to the public at least one working day prior to the hearing, with a working day being defined as any day on which the Assembly Daily File is published. In the case of special meetings, analyses are made available to the public at the beginning of the hearing.
Order of Agenda – The general rule is that bills of the Committee members are taken up after all other authors present have taken up their measures. The Committee consent calendar may be taken up as determined by the Chair. When the Chair finds that another order of business would be more expedient, measures may be taken up out of order or set as a special order of business.
Author’s Representative — If a bill is to be presented by someone other than the author, it will be taken up after all present authors (including those temporarily “passed over” and Committee members) have been accommodated. The representative must be an Assemblymember or Senator, a member of the author’s staff, or staff of an Assembly or Senate committee. No lobbyist, sponsor or supporter of the bill may present the bill before the Committee. Staff or members other than the author wishing to present the bill must first provide the Committee with a signed authorization letter from the author.
Amending Bills – The usual rules are that, when submitting amendments to Legislative Counsel for a bill in the possession of the Committee, or such a bill in the subsequent possession of the Senate or Assembly Floors, the author’s office shall provide a copy to the Committee as a courtesy.
Author’s Amendments Offered in Committee – The general rule is that, if an author offers amendments at the hearing, and the amendments are substantive, the Chair may put the bill over to allow adequate time for Committee staff to reanalyze the bill and provide an updated analysis to the Committee members. The Chair shall determine whether or not an amendment is substantive. Committee staff shall be responsible for preparing any amendments adopted in Committee.
Meetings — All Committee meetings, except for an authorized closed session, are open and public, and all persons shall be allowed to attend the meetings. A special meeting can be held in an area readily accessible to the public and not in the Chambers, and the Committee must take care that every effort is made to inform the public that a meeting has been called.
Limits on Testimony — When it is necessary, due to the number or complexity of the bills on the agenda at a hearing, to limit testimony on one or more of the bills in order to ensure that all of the bills on the agenda have a fair and reasonable opportunity to be presented and discussed by the Committee, the Chair, at his or her discretion, may limit testimony, the number of witnesses, etc.
Role of the Vice Chair — If, at a hearing commenced by the Chair, the Chair is not present or otherwise is presenting a bill to the Committee, the Vice-Chair temporarily presides. If the Vice-Chair is absent when the Chair must also be absent, the Chair may designate another Committee member to temporarily assume his or her duties.
Voting – A quorum is required to conduct official business. A majority of the entire Committee constitutes a quorum. A quorum is necessary to take action or to adopt amendments. Any vacancy on the Committee does not reduce the number of votes required to take action on a bill. The Chair may, at any time, order a call of the Committee. If requested by any member of the Committee or the author of the bill under consideration, the Chair shall order a call. In such a case, the Chair shall send the Sergeant-at-Arms for those members who are absent and not excused by the Assembly. If a quorum is not present, the Chair may commence the hearing as a subcommittee and receive testimony on any scheduled bill. A majority of the entire Committee is required to report a bill out of Committee. Committee action on bills, including reconsideration, shall be by roll call vote, and shall show all votes for and against, all members absent, and all members not voting. In the case of a tie vote, a motion fails. The final action of the Committee shall be announced by the Chair.
Making of Motions — A member who desires to make a motion shall first obtain recognition by the Chair. The member then opens by stating his or her motion, and may not speak to the merits of the motion at that time, but confines any remarks to those necessary to explain the motion. If the motion is in order and is seconded, the Chair shall state such to the Committee. If the motion is debated, the Member who made the motion shall be recognized to open debate on the motion.
Reconsideration – In committees, reconsideration of a bill may be granted only one time. And there are specified instances where a motion to reconsider can be made.
Interim Study and Information Hearings – A Committee may refer the subject matter of any bill to the Rules Committee for interim study by a majority of those present and voting or by unanimous consent. The Committee may, however, subsequently reconsider and act on the bill. In addition, the Chair may call the Committee to sit during interim or recess to conduct public hearings, gather information, discuss proposed legislation, or for any other proper purpose, conditioned on the approval of the Speaker and publication of the appropriate four-day file notice.
Letters of Support and Opposition — Letters communicating a formal position on a bill (support, opposition, concerns, etc.) must be received by the Committee by a specified day the week preceding the scheduled hearing of the bill in order for the position to be referenced in some form in the analysis. Letters received after that time may be referenced at the discretion of the Committee Consultant.
Public Records — The Committee Secretary is the custodian of the Committee’s legislative records. The Secretary preserves the Committee’s current legislative records and may store the Committee’s past legislative records with the State Archives. The legislative records contained in an official Committee file that are in the possession of the Secretary are open to inspection and reproduction by the public in the Committee office by appointment during normal working hours, subject to Assembly requirements. The records held in the State Archives are open to inspection and reproduction pursuant to the procedures established by the Secretary of State.
Committee Bills – The general rule is that a Committee may introduce a bill germane to any subject within the proper consideration of the Committee in the same manner as any member. A committee bill must contain the signature of a majority of the members of the Committee, including the Chair. The Committee, at the discretion of the Chair, may consolidate related subject matter into a single legislative proposal whenever appropriate.
Most committees of the California Legislature have adopted similar rules to those outlined above. However, each is free to adopt its own rules so long as there are not contrary to the Standing Rules of the house, nor the Joint Rules of the Legislature.
Types of Legislative Committees
In both the California State Assembly and the State Senate, there are several types of committees that operate to conduct the business of the two houses of the Legislature. These committees are the Standing Committees (with a number of subcommittees), Select Committees, Special Committees (just in the Assembly), and Joint Committees.
Standing Committee hearings are the forums for public input on pending legislation. Measures are heard in Standing Committees which meet on a regular basis throughout the legislative year. All of the Standing Committees are policy committees, except the two fiscal committees, which are the Appropriations and Budget Committees. Joint Committees have membership from both houses and consider issues of joint concern.
Committee information available online includes committee membership, staff, addresses, phone numbers, meeting schedules, and policy jurisdictions. In terms of the Standing Committees, there are 32 of them in the Assembly and 21 of them in the Senate. Created pursuant to Assembly and Senate Rules, the Standing Committees consider legislation, the state budget, and internal legislative matters, as determined by their jurisdictions. Jurisdictions are set by the Assembly and Senate Rules Committee. Standing Committees must meet specific standards for notice, analyses, quorums, and voting.
Both the Assembly and the Senate have Select Committees, which are technically subcommittees of each house’s General Research Committee.
The Assembly also has Special Committees. In 2017, those special committees were the Assembly Legislative Ethics Committee as well as the Special Committee on the Office of the Attorney General.
Pursuant to Joint Rules 36.5 and 36.7, there are a number of Joint Committees of the Legislature. Many of them were established pursuant to statutes or resolutions adopted by the two houses. During the 2017 Session, the Joint Committees are:
Joint Committee on Arts (Resolution Chapter 101, Statutes of 1984. Continuous existence.)
Joint Committee on Fairs Allocation and Classiﬁcation (Food and Agriculture Code Sections 4531, 4532, 4533, 4534, 4535. Continuous existence.)
Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture (Resolution Chapter 88, Statutes of 1981. Continuous existence.)
Joint Committee on Rules (Joint Rule 40. Continuous existence.)
Joint Legislative Audit (Government Code Sections 10501, 10502, Joint Rule 37.3. Continuous existence.)
Joint Legislative Budget (Government Code Sections 9140, 9141, Joint Rule 37. Continuous existence.)
Joint Legislative Committee on Climate Change Policies (Government Code Section 9147.10.)
Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management (Resolution Chapter 31, Statutes of 2011. Continuous existence.)
Chris Micheli is an attorney and registered lobbyist with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law.