Committees are at the core of the Senate’s work. They are recognized for their major contributions to legislation and public policy. Committees were called “the heart and soul of the Senate” by Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, the first female Speaker of the Senate, because of their focus on social, economic, and political issues.
Senate committees have three basic functions:
Most bills are referred to a committee after they have passed first and second reading in the Senate (see the Fact Sheet entitled “The Senate and Legislation”). It is at the committee stage of the legislative process that parliamentarians examine bills in detail.
The committee stage is a three-step process:
Senators come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, including business, law, education, public service, and journalism. Committees benefit from their specialized knowledge and experience when examining legislation.
Senate committees also conduct in-depth studies on topics related to their mandates. By investigating such issues, committees help turn the spotlight on important social, economic, and political concerns. These studies provide senators with a unique opportunity to hear from Government officials, interest-group representatives, academic experts, and the general public.
Important public concerns such as poverty, post-secondary education, assisted suicide, illegal drugs, mental health, Arctic sovereignty, Aboriginal affairs, international trade, and human rights have been the subject of special policy studies. The resulting investigative reports include analyses and recommendations that have often influenced proposed legislation and Government policy.
The Senate entrusts the in-depth study of the Government’s supply agenda to the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance. This committee examines all the Estimates, or Government spending proposals (save those of the Library of Parliament, which are reviewed by the Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament). Like other committees, it calls witnesses in order to gather information and conducts its own analysis. The scrutiny of Government spending is a key function of Parliament, and the National Finance Committee reports regularly on this topic to the Senate.
There are four main types of Senate committee:
Generally, committees are composed of nine to fifteen senators.
At the beginning of each session of Parliament, committee members are appointed by the Senate on the recommendation of a selection committee, usually chaired by the Government Whip (see the Fact Sheet entitled “Key Roles in the Senate Chamber”). On average, senators serve on two committees at a time. Each committee meets about twice a week, and may meet, if the occasion demands it, during periods when the Senate is adjourned. Under normal circumstances, committees do not meet during Senate sittings.
The chair of a committee is elected by its members. The chair is responsible for calling and presiding over meetings, maintaining order, overseeing the budget, and speaking publicly on behalf of the committee.
To learn more about the Senate’s committees and their work, please visit www.sen.parl.gc.ca or follow the Senate on Twitter: @SenateCA.