From Issue Spot: A Quick Look At the Legislative Committee Structure

Monday, March 11, 2013

Like it or not, bills essentially live and die in committees.  For the uninitiated, the Massachusetts legislature’s committee system is composed of joint committees, standing committees and conference committees.  Each committee has a specific jurisdiction covering particular types of subject matter.  For example, bills relating to criminal justice issues typically go to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, and those relating to the salaries and retirement of public employees are covered by the Joint Committee on Public Service. 

The process of a bill becoming law begins when a legislator files a proposal – often at the request of a constituent or a group like the BBA – with the respective clerk’s office.  It is a complicated process that includes some very basic steps: recording docket numbers in a book, assigning bill numbers, and printing the actual bill.  Eventually a bill finds its way to the relevant committee. 

The Massachusetts legislature has twenty-nine joint committees.  A joint committee has both a senate and house chair.  With the exception of the Joint Transportation Committee each joint committee has six senators and eleven representatives.  (The Joint Transportation Committee has seven senators and thirteen representatives.)

Each branch has separate standing committees limited to members from that branch.  For example, both the House and Senate each have their own committee on ways & means, post audit and oversight, and ethics and bonding. 

A conference committee comes into play only after the regular committee process has been completed.  This means that there has already been a public hearing but the House and Senate have passed different versions of the same bill.  Members from each branch are appointed to work on the conference committee.  The conference committee meets to hammer out an agreed upon or compromise version of the bill.  This compromise version must then return to both the House and Senate for final approval.

Almost all of the bills that the BBA works on in any given legislative session end up before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.  This legislative session, the Judiciary Committee is chaired by veteran House Chair Eugene L. O’Flaherty and new Senate Chair Katherine Clark. 

Now two months into the current two-year legislative session, bills have been filed and committee assignments have been made.  The House and Senate Clerks have already referred approximately 4,500 bills to their respective committees.  Staff is now reviewing those bills and hearings will be scheduled soon. 

Stayed tuned! Next week’s post will provide a closer look at the Judiciary Committee.

 - Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association


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