Congressional Hearings Are Too Often About Spin

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Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Back in August, a House subcommittee chairman held a field hearing in Georgia — one of a series they were convening around the country — to inquire into the cost to American workers of illegal immigration. Hispanic groups noticed, however, that the only people testifying were immigration hard-liners. So they complained to the chairman. He was unsympathetic. "What I wanted," he said, "was witnesses who agree with me, not disagree with me." 

For anyone who might have been tempted to follow the hearings in order to learn more about the issue, that comment pretty much summed up what they were about: public relations. They were held to advance a particular agenda and convince listeners of its correctness. 

Unfortunately, this is now the norm in Congress, not the exception. 

Sure, you can still find hearings on Capitol Hill that are designed to study an issue in all its complexity, seek a wide range of views, analyze possible approaches to solving national problems, and serve as the basis for crafting effective public policy. But you have to look pretty hard. 

Instead, hearings are typically a vehicle for people with agendas to pursue them. Certainly, the witnesses do — they're usually there to advocate for a particular point of view. Members of Congress, especially the ones who put the hearings together, quite often come with their minds made up; what they're looking for are data or arguments that will either reinforce what they already believe or help them discredit their adversaries. Even the spectators, more often than not, are there because they have a special interest in the issue or in the outcome. 

In other words, the congressional hearing has become a highly political exercise. 

This isn't against the rules. Committee chairs are free to set up the hearings any way they want, as long as a majority of committee members are willing to go along. But no average citizen should allow himself or herself to be fooled: Such hearings are part of a battle for "hearts and minds," not a group of policy-makers openly and objectively delving into problems or seeking the best public policy solution to a difficult challenge. 

Perhaps this shouldn't matter. Americans, after all, seem increasingly drawn to blogs, cable news channels, books, and magazines that reflect their own ideological leanings. Why shouldn't Congress? 

Well, for one thing, the canned nature of congressional hearings makes them less useful to members themselves. As political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have noted, during the 1960s and 1970s the average Congress had some 5,400 hearings; in the 1980s and 1990s, the average dropped slightly to 4,800. After that, though, the number plummeted; in the last Congress, it was 2,100. 

And attendance at these has also declined. Pressed with other business, in Washington for only a few days — or sometimes only a few hours — each week, members typically drift in and out of hearings, perhaps to ask a question or two, but rarely to understand an issue better or to gain new insights. 

Turning committee hearings into exercises in spin also undercuts their purpose, weakening the entire committee system on which Congress rests by turning it into a public relations apparatus, not a means of searching for the facts needed to build legislation or understand policy options. 

Small wonder that Congress has been shirking its crucial oversight role vis-à-vis the President and his administration; if the congressional hearing is all about PR, then it becomes impossible to scrutinize the performance of the White House and federal agencies with dispassion and an analytical frame of mind. 

Perhaps the greatest cost has come in public distrust. I suppose it's inevitable that, when policy-making is seen as simply part of a long ideological campaign, then traditional mechanisms for generating sound policy — like congressional committee hearings — become part of that campaign, too. 

But the American people don't seem very enthusiastic about this. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a more cynical, angry, and disaffected citizenry. 

There are a lot of reasons for Congress' low standing in the public opinion polls, but surely one of them is that Americans are tired of politicians who seem more interested in propagandizing than in listening and learning. 

(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.)