Congressional Hearings Are Not About The Witness

Monday, July 12, 2010

The recent appearance before Congress by BP's Tony Hayward was filled with members of Congress venting their frustration. It was a reminder, says former Congressman Lee Hamilton, that "Congressional Hearings Are Not About The Witness."

Even before Tony Hayward, the embattled CEO of BP, appeared in front of a House investigative subcommittee on June 17, everyone knew why he was there. It was not to apologize for the Gulf oil spill or to explain his company's behavior — though all of this was expected of him. He was there, in large measure, so that members of Congress could vent their outrage — and that of their constituents — over the spill. 

They did this for hours, accusing BP of taking shortcuts that increased the chances of an oil-rig explosion and its chief of "stonewalling" efforts to understand what had happened. It was a bipartisan pile-on — with the notable exception of the Texas Republican who apologized for the White House's efforts to secure a $20 billion compensation fund from the company. By the end, USA Today was comparing Hayward to a piñata. 

All of this was a fine example of the drama inherent in a high-profile congressional hearing, which, for better or worse, is where the American public often builds its impression of Congress. There are plenty of tedious hearings on Capitol Hill — though they are often just as important, if not more so, as the ones that attract a media scrum. But the hearings that rivet the public's attention, play to a packed room, and command that evening's news cycle showcase Congress at both its best and worst. 

Members can appear deeply knowledgeable and appallingly ignorant, angry and sympathetic, impressive and lackluster. They can pander to mass opinion, showboat, ask silly questions, and ignore or misstate the facts. They can also ask tough, penetrating questions, hold public figures to account for their actions, and build Americans' understanding of thorny national problems. Sometimes you can see all of this in the space of a single hearing — and, from time to time, in a single member. 

For the witnesses in the limelight, the stakes are high. Careers and reputations get made and broken in congressional hearing rooms, and causes advanced or destroyed. Yet in the end, hearings like these are part of the work of the Congress — staged and run to serve the purposes of members. 

Indeed, if I were to offer one piece of advice above all to someone called to testify, it would be to remember this overriding fact: The hearing is more about advancing the interests of the members attending than about you. The cameras may all be trained on you and the reporters jotting down every word you say, but you are there to serve the purposes of the politicians arrayed in front of you — for publicity, for channeling public sentiment, for scoring political points, and even for digging deeply into a problem in a praiseworthy effort to build public understanding. 

With that in mind, here are a few pointers for people who find themselves on the spotlit side of a witness table: 

Prepare carefully. I mean this both in an intellectual sense — you want to have your thoughts, arguments, and facts composed before you get to Capitol Hill — as well as a physical sense. A high-profile hearing can go on for hours without any break. All witnesses are advised to drink liquids sparingly, or not at all, to prepare for a long ordeal. My guess is that advice led to Gen. David Petraeus fainting at a recent hearing. 

Be confident and credible, and advocate your position as clearly and forcefully as you can while remaining polite and respectful of the committee. Members of Congress will undoubtedly challenge you, and you need to remember that they're doing their jobs, not just seeking 15 seconds on the evening news. Don't get upset if you're contradicted; just focus on the message you want to get across, and remember to keep it simple. 

Always remain calm and polite, no matter how explosive or provocative members become. You won't harm your cause by keeping your temper; you almost certainly will by losing it. Remember that hearings set the stage for the future: If you pick a fight, you may very well win it at the moment, but you'll almost certainly lose it in the legislation that emerges. 

Answer the questions you're asked; don't dodge or ignore them. If you don't know the answer, just say so, and afterward look up the answer and furnish it to committee staff and members. That's how you build credibility. 

Finally, while this might seem an odd admonition, enjoy yourself. High-profile hearings are political theater on a national stage, and while the stakes may be high, taking a step back to appreciate the drama of the moment will help you savor a singular experience. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)