CongressLine by Congressional Hearings

Many years ago I was watching a playoff hockey game on television and just as the first intermission began, the network switched to live coverage of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I was struck by the odd similarity of watching a hockey game and a Senate committee hearing breaking out. The verbal histrionics of the hearing was not much different from the rough and tumble hockey game.

This month we look at the most visible and widely recognized function of Congress: the hearing. The antics that take place at committee hearings can fill volumes, at times very humorous, other times tragic, and frequently quite dramatic. The image of high and lofty members of Congress or Senators sitting high above a lone witness, grilling them on some issue is without a doubt the most common vision most people have of Congress. It is frequently satirized in television commercials and comedy shows. Ironically, it is the least important and least influential function of Congress. I am not going too far out on a limb to say that, with only a few exceptions, no policy has been created directly by a committee hearing. It is usually either a media show or a courtesy to witnesses who wish to testify on a specific issue.

Most committees and subcommittees in Congress hold hearings on the issues or bills before their committee. The objective is to hear a variety of viewpoints on a particular topic, hopefully assisting Congress in their legislating. A hearing is distinctly different from a committee markup or business session, which is very influential and important. The public hearing is the markup session’s overly dramatic, less influential sibling.

I categorize hearings into three types: informational hearings on a specific topic or bill, where anyone Congress chooses to invite can opine and answer questions on the topic. Witnesses can range from retired seniors unable to get prescription coverage under Medicare, to baseball players testifying about steroid use. Advocacy groups, corporations, labor unions, local government officials, governors, even small children testify on any topic imaginable before Congress. While this type of hearing is interesting to those who testify and maybe to the media eager to show pain and suffering, the most the hearing can do is to escalate an issue higher on the priority list. Therefore, the more heart-rending and dramatic the testimony is, the better.

Another hearing type is the oversight or investigative hearing. An oversight hearing is one of the most important, and frequently abused or ignored, functions of Congress, which is to keep an eye on the Executive Branch. Every single Cabinet Secretary will testify at least once a year before some committee in Congress. Undersecretaries and deputies who testify need to have clear and effective testimony skills on their resumes if they want to continue in the job. Usually, oversight hearings are mundane affairs reviewing that year’s budget priorities or are updates on specific projects. When things go wrong, hurricanes strike or war takes a grim turn, you can always count on Congress to hold a hearing. An agency chief, unfortunately on the job during a disaster, can only dread the committee investigation hearing that will undoubtedly follow. No one is immune; generals, admirals and titans of industry and labor have been brought down to human level at a Congressional hearing. It is a humbling event, unique to a democracy.

The third type of hearing is unique to the Senate and that is the confirmation hearing. Ordinarily, this is the most boring of all hearings, unless it involves a nomination to the Supreme Court, in which case it is the most dramatic of them all. The Senate is charged of course with approving the nomination of high level executive department chiefs, military officers, ambassadors, and judges. Except for most military commissions, every one of them usually involves testimony and questions from the corresponding Senate committee or subcommittee.

The atmosphere of a committee hearing is both formal and very informal at the same time. Hearings are held in a variety of committee hearing rooms from the ornate chambers of the older committees like Ways and Means or Agriculture to more modern, television friendly rooms like the Senate’s hearing room in the Hart Office Building, with an ornate marble backdrop. Witnesses face the committee who are seated at a higher level overlooking the witnesses. In some cases there are many levels of seats, much like an arena. I am always struck by the continuous secondary conversations between members and staff, as well as by members coming and going all during the testimony. It is not uncommon for only a couple of committee members to be present, with rows of empty seats. Behind the testifiers is the audience, and anyone who wants to go to a hearing of Congress, can, though nowadays you need to go through the gauntlet of Capitol security to get there and wait in a line outside the room. It is first come first served for seats, unless you pay someone to line-sit for you – a unique industry in Washington, DC. Even fairly obscure hearings have a considerable audience. If this is your issue, it is not a bad place to see and be seen by your colleagues and adversaries.

Last year I decided to leave the comforts of my office and venture to the Capitol for a hearing. My old high school debate partner, whom I haven’t seen in over 25 years, was testifying about Medicare before the Senate Budget Committee. She is now a CEO of a major health insurance company and I am not, which speaks to how much of a better debater she was than I. She did an excellent job. In very orderly numbered points, she clearly outlined how to fix the most vexing financial problem Congress faces – Medicare. I was impressed. So were the half a dozen Senators on the dais. The most striking quote however was one Senator’s comments that her ideas were excellent and should be implemented. Too bad “that this is just the Budget Committee, that is not our area.” So fixing Medicare will have to wait until she is able to get to the right committee, I guess.

In my business of monitoring Congress, one of the most frequently requested items by subscribers is the transcript of the questions and answers at a hearing. The committee transcribes every hearing, but an actual transcript usually isn’t released for months. A good Washington business is transcribing these hearings, within hours or days. During the recent Supreme Court nomination hearings, I monitored the online feed of the words of the questions and answers almost as they were made. The whole city it seemed waited on each word uttered by the nominee. Very few were interested in the long pontifications of the Senators. In such cases, a bad performance at a hearing could make the hearing important. Judge Robert Bork was a bit too blunt in his confirmation hearing many years ago; hence he is not on the Supreme Court. Promises made in confirmation hearings can be held against you later, which was recently the case for the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner. Traditionally the most important testimony is the Chairman of the Board of Governor’s of the Federal Reserve Board. His testimony on the state of the economy frequently impacts the financial markets immediately.

The transcription of these hearings is a part of the process that I find very interesting. Usually transcribers listen to an audio recording of the hearing, and then transcribe the words as text. This is not done in the hearing room and can be done by quite a variety of people miles away. It always makes me chuckle that the text of the words of the Federal Reserve Chairman, anxiously awaited by Wall Street and $500 an hour attorneys, can come from a part-time transcriber, sitting in her living room in North Carolina. Outside organizations do not transcribe every hearing; there is just not enough business to justify it, which also speaks to the importance of the hearing. The subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans of the House Resources Committee just doesn’t have the panache or demand as the House Armed Service Committee or Senate Judiciary Committee.

Despite some highly visible hearings, most are quite technical and dry. Comments made in a committee hearing rarely change the debate and usually are a formality. Comments made on the floor of either Chamber, usually equally bland actually have more weight. When a court reviews the legislative intent of a particular piece of legislation, the committee hearing is last on the list of official importance. It is first on the list, however, for most drama fans and probably the only Congressional event most people have ever seen.

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