Congressional hearings 101

So a friend from Chicago, rightfully and safely far removed from the political circus, asked me innocently what hearings are for and whether I could give a brief rundown of how they factor into legislation. I’ll copy my reply here for the benefit of anyone living far from DC and wondering what on earth our politicians do in the lofty chambers of Congress.*

Here’s the email reply:

(You’re asking someone who lives in DC. NO BRIEF RUNDOWN POSSIBLE. jk. but this is probably longer than you’re looking for..)

so hearings are *ostensibly* for Congresspeople (of the House and the Senate) to ask a panel of experts about a topic so that they can enact proper legislation. (they don’t vote in a hearing – votes take place elsewhere at all times of the day)

For example, if Congress is debating whether or not to allow liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to non-free trade agreement countries, they will convene many, many hearings about the topic where they invite relevant experts to testify. These hearings are typically held by smaller groups called Committees. Each half of Congress – the House and Senate – is composed of Committees to oversee different areas, like finance/budget, national security, etc. Each Committee is further divided into sub-committees that look at narrower topics within that area. For example, the Senate Appropriations committee (http://www.appropriations.senate.gov/) will have several subcommittees (http://www.appropriations.senate.gov/subcommittee/full-committee). Their energy and water subcommittee (http://www.appropriations.senate.gov/subcommittee/energy-and-water-development) may hold a hearing about the Dept of Energy (DOE)’s budget, which will include questions about LNG exports as the DOE is responsible for approving exports. However, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (http://www.energy.senate.gov/public/) will also hold hearings related to LNG exports. House committees and subcommittees will do the same. So, as you can see there are a lot of committees and a lot of hearings, and topics and areas can overlap.
*Realistically* Politicians use hearings as a theatre. Sometimes they do ask important questions and want real answers, but oftentimes they go into the hearing having already made up their mind and only asked very pointed questions. I’m not sure who they’re trying to impress. Other politicians, the witnesses, and the journalists and stakeholders who show up to watch? Yeah I guess. In any case it can be highly unproductive and sometimes hearings degenerate into a verbal wrestling match between politicians with the finesse of a fifth grader’s vocabulary. There’s a wide span in the quality and character of Congresspeople out there.
As for legislation, basically a politician or group of politicians write a bill that needs to survive votes from both branches of Congress, a Committee, plus approval by the President before it can become law.
Most times hearings are to put pressure on other parties. For example, Congress doesn’t have to be drafting a law on LNG exports, though some politicians are currently trying to push a bill through. They mostly hold hearings to put pressure on the DOE, which has approval power over LNG exports.

 

and a brief follow-up:

another thing about hearings is that though they hold so many, if you follow the hearings related to one topic there’s rarely anything new said. In LNG export hearings for example, it’s always a 3-4 hour variation of “Why is the DOE being so slow at approving exports” and the DOE replying “We have to make the public interest assessment” and “Cannot say for sure at this time”

*Only some chambers are lofty. Many Congressional buildings are quite approachable and modest inside.

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One comment

  1. Courtney · · Reply

    Ha ha. I remember this! It was helpful. Hope it will help others too.

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