The Senate Commerce Committee is one of the 20 standing and select committees of the United States Senate. It’s one of the most important of the Senate’s committees, and its chair is one of the most powerful senators, because so much of the work of the Congress is related to its Constitutional mandate to regulate commerce. In accordance with the Standing Rules of the Senate, members are elected to the various committees by the full Senate; practically speaking, the majority leadership makes the assignments and the Senate ratifies them.
Also in accordance with the Senate’s rules, the Senate Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over all Senate matters in 19 areas related to commerce, science and technology. For example, interstate commerce is a prime area of the committee’s jurisdiction, as is the regulation of consumer products. Marine navigation, both inland and ocean, are also prime areas of the committee’s jurisdiction, as well as management of the nation’s fisheries. The committee’s jurisdiction also extends to science and technology, transportation and highway safety, and sports. Most of these issues are directly regulated by departments in the Executive branch, such as the departments of Commerce and Transportation, the Coast Guard, and the Merchant Marine. The committee routinely reviews the operations and budgets of these departments, and periodically reviews and revises the legislation authorizing them.
First organized as the Senate Committee on Commerce and Manufactures in 1816, the Senate Commerce Committee has gone through several changes of name and jurisdiction since, reflecting the growth of the nation, its adaptation to new technologies and the increasing complexity of the national and global economies. Its current name, the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, was adopted by the Senate in 1977, reflecting the merged jurisdictions of the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences and the Committee on Commerce. This marked the first time jurisdiction was assigned to the committee for the regulation of consumer products, as well as non-military transportation issues arising from aeronautical and space policy.
Although the Senate Commerce Committee is one of the busiest and most essential committees of the Congress, its work is not as exciting or earthshaking as some of the other committees, like those that work on treaty ratifications, Supreme Court nominations and Presidential impeachments. In a normal session of the Congress, the Senate Commerce Committee will review the operations and budgets of the various federal departments for whose oversight it is responsible. It will hold hearings on candidates nominated by the president to fill high-level vacancies in those departments, and from time to time, it will overhaul existing legislation within its jurisdiction both as a routine housekeeping measure and also to introduce new issues. It will review new business referred to it by the full Senate, usually referring it to the appropriate subcommittee for action. For all aspects of its work it will issue reports and recommendations to the full Senate.
The influence of political considerations on the deliberations and activities of the Senate Commerce Committee cannot be overstated. Although the committee’s agenda and meetings are firmly under the control of the majority party, the structure and rules of the Senate make it almost impossible for it to take action without the minority’s cooperation. Thus, the committee’s informal activities often involve political deal making, including the allocation of earmarks, which is the practice of dedicating a portion of the funds that have been allocated to a particular department or agency for a specific project, often in the Senator’s home state. For example, within a budget of billions of dollars for the Transportation Department, the sum of $25 million US Dollars (USD) may be earmarked for a particular project, such as the construction of an interchange on an interstate highway. This earmark would provide jobs for the Senator’s constituents, potentially generating political support for re-election.
Lobbyists — registered representatives of organizations, businesses and governments, both domestic and foreign — also work very hard to influence the deliberations of the committee’s members for the benefit of the organizations they represent. They’ll sometimes provide significant technical assistance to the committee in the form of scientific studies and research, in addition to which they’ll sometimes provide substantial financial contributions to the re-election campaigns of senators whose votes support their interests. State and local governments, as well as the White House, also regularly work with committee members on particular issues. Members of the committee can also count on entertaining grassroots lobbyists, who essentially are private citizens working individually or collectively to influence committee votes.