What is the role of the committee chair?
Senate committees require a presiding officer in order to be properly constituted. For this purpose, Senate committees elect a chair and a deputy chair at their organizational meetings, held pursuant to rule 12-13.1 Once elected, committee chairs can exercise various powers and authorities, under the Rules, by practice and by authority delegated by the committee itself.
The role of the chair in committee is to preside over meetings, guide deliberations and seek to maintain order and decorum. The committee chair has several other roles outside of committee meetings. These include representing the committee when budget requests are submitted to the Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration (Internal Economy Committee), tabling or presenting committee reports to the Senate,2 moving various motions related to the committee’s work in the Chamber and acting as a spokesperson, if requested by the committee.
1 In this section, all references to rules are to the Rules of the Senate.
2 See rule 12-22(2).
How is the committee chair selected?
Immediately after the opening of a new session, in accordance with rules 12-1, 12-2(1)(a), 12-2(2), the Committee of Selection is established by the Senate to nominate both a Speaker pro tempore3 and to report on the membership of the Senate’s committees. Pursuant to rule 12-13, once the membership report has been adopted in the Senate, the Clerk of the Senate calls the organization meetings for all committees.
At the organization meeting, the election of the chair is presided over by the clerk of the committee. Once elected, the chair presides over the election of a deputy chair and presides over the rest of the meeting. Once the chair and deputy chair have been selected, the committee adopts several motions (known as “routine motions”) that confer various powers and authorities on the chair and deputy chair.
3 The Speaker pro tempore is, in essence, a deputy speaker who presides over sittings of the Senate when the Speaker is absent from the Chamber or is unable to perform duties in the chair (see rule 2-4(2)).
What powers does the committee normally delegate to the chair?
Among the routine motions that are adopted at the organization meeting, a committee usually establishes a Subcommittee on Agenda and Procedure, or “steering committee” which is normally comprised of the chair, the deputy chair and a third member. By practice, the chair of the committee presides over the steering committee. This subcommittee is often delegated the responsibility for scheduling meetings, determining the agenda and selecting witnesses.
Another routine motion confers the authority to commit funds and to certify accounts on behalf of the committee to the chair, deputy chair and/or clerk of the committee and confers co-signing authority to the chair and deputy chair for consultants invoices.5
The chair is also typically authorized by a routine motion to direct the research staff, on behalf of the committee, on the preparation of briefing materials, reports and other committee documents. In general terms, this means that the chair normally coordinates the work of the research staff, including analysts assigned from the Library of Parliament, as well as any consultants hired by the committee, according to the work plan and/or agenda, as determined by either the committee as a whole or by the steering committee.
4 See sections 7 and 8 of chapter 3:06, of the Senate Administrative Rules.
5 See Fifth Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Administration and Budgets, adopted (as amended) by the Senate on May 8, 2008.
What is the chair’s role at committee meetings?
The chair presides over the proceedings, meaning that he or she calls the meeting to order and recognizes individual speakers6 , whether they are committee members, other senators or witnesses. The chair may also be called upon to administer an oath or affirmation, when needed7.
The chair convenes committee meetings (once authorized to do so either by the committee or the steering committee), verifies that quorum8 is present, and ensures that the meeting starts and ends within the committee’s designated time-slot.
The chair is also responsible for maintaining order and decorum during the proceedings. It is important to note that neither the chair, nor the committee, can sanction any perceived transgression against it9:
“A committee has no authority to punish one of its members or other persons for an alleged offence committed against it. Only the House can decide that an offence has been committed.”10
6 Because debate in committees tends to be more informal than in the Senate, by practice committees do not impose time limits on interventions, nor do they address questions through the chair (See rule 32, mutatis mutandis, a senator desiring to speak addresses the rest of the senators in the chamber).
7 In accordance with sub-section 10 (3) of the Parliament of Canada Act, which empowers committees to administer an oath to witnesses. The oath or affirmation may be administered by the chair or clerk of a committee.
8 Most committees also adopt a routine motion empowering the committee to meet with reduced quorum, within certain constraints.
9 The committee can bring the matter to the attention of the Senate, by way of a report or a question of privilege to the Chamber.
10 See Beauchesne’s 6th ed., § 820(2).
What rulings can be made by the committee chair?
The chair is responsible for making all rulings on matters of parliamentary procedure in committee. This can include ruling on points of order raised by members, intervening on his or her own initiative to preserve order, determining the procedural admissibility of amendments to bills and putting any questions/motions to a vote.
Any committee member is entitled to raise a point of order to ensure that the Rules of the Senate, as well as accepted practices, are being followed. The chair, as the presiding officer of the committee, has the responsibility of ruling on such points of order and can intervene on his or her own initiative in order to enforce the Rules or maintain order . Once the chair determines that a point of order has been debated sufficiently by the members of the committee , the chair will render a decision.
Any ruling made by the chair is subject to appeal. If the chair’s decision is to be challenged it must be done immediately, by way of a motion that asks if the chair’s ruling should be sustained. If the committee decides (by majority) that the chair’s ruling be sustained, the committee proceeds immediately to its next item of business. If there is a tie vote or a majority of votes are opposed to the motion, the chair’s ruling is overturned.
11 See rules 2-1(1), 2-6(1) and 2-6(2).
12 It is important to note that the chair cannot participate in the debate on a point of order on which he or she is required to render a decision (see rule 2-3).
What is the chair’s role when examining legislation?
A primary function of Senate committees is the consideration of bills. A committee normally decides to invite witnesses to appear at public hearings. This decision can be made by the committee or may be delegated to its steering committee.
Once witness testimony has concluded, the committee proceeds to a clause-by-clause study of the bill. Amendments may be proposed by committee members. The chair calls each clause of the bill separately and the committee votes on them successively. The chair may ask the members present for leave to deviate from this procedure and instead either consider clauses as a group, or dispense with clause-by-clause consideration altogether13.
The committee then adopts the bill with or without amendments and instructs the chair to report the bill back to the Senate.
The chair must initial all amendments on the working copy of the bill14 and sign the report on the bill. Then either the chair or another designated senator presents the report to the Chamber for further consideration15. At this stage, the chair or a designate is called upon to explain the reasons for and effects of any amendments16.
13 See rule 12-20(3) which states that a committee cannot dispense with clause-by-clause consideration of a bill without leave of the members present.
14 See rule 12-23(6).
15 See rule 12-22(2).
16 See rule 12-23(4) which states: “The Senator presenting a committee report recommending amendments shall explain the purpose and effect of each amendment.”
Can the chair participate in debates or votes?
Committee members participate in debate on various motions and amendments. While the committee is engaged in debate, the chair keeps a list of speakers and should ensure that every senator who wishes to speak in a debate has an opportunity to do so. Once debate has concluded, the chair puts the question on the motion to a vote. Committee chairs are entitled to debate and to vote like any other member of the committee, although they often choose not to exercise that right. It is also important to note that the chair does not have a casting vote, and is therefore not permitted to break a tie vote with their vote. A tie vote results in the motion being defeated.
Votes can be conducted by voice, or the committee clerk may be asked to conduct a “recorded vote,” calling the name of each committee member, starting with the chair. Committee members indicate whether they are in favour or opposed to the motion or whether they abstain. The clerk announces the result to the committee and the chair declares the motion carried or defeated.
DEPUTY CHAIRS AND ACTING CHAIRS:
What are the roles and responsibilities of the deputy chair?
The deputy chair of a committee, usually from the opposing party of the chair, serves as a replacement by presiding over meetings when the chair is unable to preside. The deputy chair is also normally selected to be a member of the steering committee. The deputy chair may also be conferred the authority to commit funds and to certify accounts, as determined by the committee in its routine motions. The deputy chair is also required to co-sign on all invoices submitted for payment by any consultants and/or personnel that are hired by the committee17.
In essence, the deputy chair normally exercises the powers of the chair when the chair is absent, unless the position of the chair is vacant.
17 See Fifth Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Administration and Budgets, adopted (as amended) by the Senate on May 8, 2008
What is an acting chair?
If the committee chair and deputy chair are both absent and unable to preside, an acting chair is chosen. Often the chair may propose an acting chair, with the committee’s consent, in advance of any absence. If an acting chair has not been selected in advance, the clerk of the committee, after advising the committee of the chair’s and deputy chair’s absences, presides over the election of an acting chair at the beginning of the committee meeting.
An acting chair has all of the powers and duties of the chair while presiding over the meeting, but has no authority to convene meetings or preside when the office of the chair is vacant18. The power of the acting chair only lasts until the chair is able to resume his or her duties19 or until the position of the chair becomes vacant.
18 See O’Brien and Bosc, p. 1033.
19 See rule 2-4(2).
How can the chair become vacant?
The office of the chair can become vacant due to membership changes, resignation, retirements, illness or death. If that occurs, the committee ceases to be duly constituted. Therefore the committee clerk must preside over the election of a new chair at the first opportunity.