At Congressional Hearings, Let The Experts Do The Talking
Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing featuring President Donald Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen was what many expected it to be: largely scripted, with dramatic and partisan-tailored questions designed either to bolster or undermine Cohen’s testimony regarding the president’s personal finances and business dealings.
In other words, Wednesday’s Oversight hearing accomplished little oversight. Informed observers knew it would turn out this way before the cameras turned on.
Such media-driven events cloud the vital purpose of congressional hearings, which is to provide opportunities for Congress to gain transparent and public information that allows its members to make informed decisions. This state of affairs does a disservice to both Congress and the public.
While Cohen’s hearing was front-page news, most hearings do not include blockbuster witnesses or boast much media coverage at all. In fact, many committee hearings fail to get a majority of their own members to participate. Most hearings outside the public eye focus on less-newsworthy topics. The same day Cohen testified, for instance, House committees held hearings on measles, domestic chemical facilities, international development policies and small business assistance programs.
During these less-conspicuous hearings, members have a real opportunity to collect testimony and information from experts and officials, which strengthens their knowledge of nuanced policy issues and sharpens their focus on possible solutions. Learning this information also helps Congress serve as an effective check on federal agencies and to challenge the expanding scope of the other branches.
But time and again, Congress fails to take advantage of these hearings. Instead, members often read from scripts prepared by committee and personal staff. At times, members are even seen or being handed notes by, more-informed aides when a witness’s answer deviates from the script. Other times, these hearings seem to focus more on generating fundraising opportunities and viral online videos than on gathering information. Indeed, after a member’s five minutes are up, usually little information has been gathered — or understood.
Neither Congress nor the public is best served this way.
However, there are ways to promote more genuine oversight. One of the most meaningful changes members could make would be to use their staffs to question witnesses during hearings. Although most committee rules contain limitations, the rules of several committees already allow staffers to question hearing witnesses. Other committees’ rules are silent on the matter.
There is recent precedent for members yielding their time to someone other than themselves. When the Senate Judiciary Committee heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, most Senate Republicans delegated their time to an outside state prosecutor who specializes in sexual assault cases.
Of course, outside experts are often unnecessary. Instead, in-house staffers with subject-matter expertise are more than able to do the job. In fact, these experts are doing most of the work the members take credit for in front of the cameras anyway.
Granting congressional staffers the opportunity to question witnesses would benefit members and committees. Members are incredibly time-constrained, and their legislative and travel obligations often limit their ability to prepare for most hearings. (The Senate’s recent Facebook hearings provide an embarrassing example.) Staffers’ jobs, on the other hand, require preparing for hearings in order to brief their members, creating scripts and proposing questions for the members to ask. And some staffers do even more, such as taking part in depositions, witness preparation and document review. Having staffers ask their own questions — derived from their own research and expertise — is a natural next step.
Because they know the issues inside and out, staffers would often be better able to respond to surprising testimony or an unwilling witness than the members they serve. Staff questioners would also likely be more flexible and better able to ask witnesses substantive follow-up questions. Their expertise would also make them less likely to allow a reluctant witness to pivot away from salient issues. And since there is less incentive for staffers to play to cameras than for members, committees may find that other government actors are more willing to cooperate with congressional inquiries.
Of course, using staffers to question witnesses wouldn’t always be necessary or even appropriate. Some members, after all, bring with them courtroom and investigatory experience that serve them well in committee hearings. But members who lack such experience would likely benefit from allowing a more knowledgeable staff member to take their place for questioning.
It is naive to believe that staffers will — or should — be the questioners in high-drama hearings. With witnesses like Michael Cohen, the media coverage is too valuable, and the public deserves to see where their representatives stand on the most significant topic of the day. On the other hand, there are many opportunities where members should step aside for the good of the process. Let the experts do the talking, particularly when the intent is genuine, effective oversight — an all-too forgotten duty of the first branch.