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What Is the Senate Armed Services Committee?

The House and Senate convene in the U.S. Capital building.
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The Senate Armed Services Committee is a standing committee in the US Senate with broad oversight of U.S. defense, national security and military matters. The committee’s jurisdiction includes the Department of Defense; nuclear, aeronautical and space defense; the Selective Service System; and pay and benefits for the armed services. Six subcommittees help oversee these areas. The Senate Armed Services Committee and its subcommittees have the power to investigate issues that fall under their purview. Hearings have touched on major modern military concerns, such as the war in Afghanistan and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in regard to homosexual service members.

The Senate Armed Services Committee and the similar committee in the House of Representatives were created by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. The act merged the Senate Military Affairs and Naval Affairs committees and marked the first time the Senate had one panel responsible for national defense oversight. The committee first met on Jan. 13, 1947, with 13 members. As of the 111th Congress, 27 Senators served on the panel. The group is chaired by the Senate’s majority party, which also gets more committee seats and therefore more votes.

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The charter for the Senate Armed Services Committee gave the group responsibility for “common defense,” and along with it, the departments of defense, army, navy and air force. The committee authorizes defense projects run through the departments and holds confirmation hearings for the department heads. The members also monitor the actions of each entity, both in war and peacetime, and may call in commanders to answer questions about their work. Further, the committee weighs in on and approves plans for pay, promotion and retirement for the armed services.

The committee also exercises control over specific areas of national security and defense. For example, the panel’s charter gave it oversight of the national security aspects of nuclear energy. The group also has jurisdiction over aeronautical and space programs that involve military operations or weapons systems.

Selective Service System oversight falls under the committee’s jurisdiction as well. The Selective Service System holds a database of American men eligible for military service in case conscription is ever required. The committee helped push through the 1948 act that created the Selective Service. Like its power to question military commanders, committee members also may interrogate Selective Service agency officials.

With broad responsibilities, the committee splits much of its work into subcommittees. As of the 111th Congress, the group had six subcommittees: Airland, Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Personnel, Readiness and Management Support, Seapower and Strategic Forces. The subcommittees may hold their own, more targeted hearings, though major issues usually are aired before the entire group.

The Senate Armed Services Committee also has held hearings on notable military issues. The group investigated the so-called “torture memos” that debated harsh interrogation tactics used on terrorism suspects throughout the early 2000s. It also looked into allegations that wounded soldiers were not receiving the proper care at a crumbling Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The committee also held several hearings into the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars homosexuals from serving openly in the armed services.

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