House and Senate Hearings: Gathering the Facts

Introduction

Vanessa’s school plans to offer a broader range of food in the cafeteria, but the school administrators are still deciding how to implement this project. To help make a decision, the committee has invited different people to speak and offer suggestions. Vanessa will talk about what kinds of food the student body wants to see more of, like more vegetarian and vegan options. Some cafeteria workers and health teachers will also be offering their perspectives. Once the committee hears from all of the speakers, they will make a decision.

Explanation

Like the administrative group at Vanessa’s school, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, which make up the U.S. Congress, hold hearings to get feedback on possible legislation. Like the students, workers, and teachers that Vanessa’s school heard, Congressional committees can ask a wide range of people to speak on their knowledge of the issue, allowing legislators to make an informed decision. 

House and Senate Hearings

A House or Senate hearing, also known as a Congressional hearing, is a meeting of a Senate, House, joint, or special committee of Congress. The goals of these hearings vary from gaining information and opinions on proposed legislation, conducting investigations, confirming people to appointed offices, evaluating the activities of government departments, or overseeing the implementation of federal laws. They are typically open to the public.

The History

Hearings have always been a part of the U.S. government. However, they only began to be published for the public in the late 1800s. While several notable hearings were published slightly earlier in the Serial Set, a series of Congressional reports and documents started in 1816, most publications only became available for purchase in 1924. Hearings began to be televised in 1948, and in recent years, many have also become available on recorded webcasts. Most committee hearings are open to the public, but not everyone is located close enough to D.C. or has the time to attend these hearings, so publishing, recording, and televising the hearings allow almost everyone access to the content of these hearings. 

How It Works

There are four main types of hearings: legislative, oversight, investigative, and confirmation. Legislative hearings involve people speaking on potential public laws, allowing academics, interest groups, government officials, and affected citizens to offer their knowledge. Oversight hearings review a law or activity. They are usually interested in the performance of government officials and federal programs. These hearings seek to improve government operations' efficiency and effectiveness, and are one of the most common types of hearings.

Investigative hearings make up some of the most significant hearings in U.S. history, such as the Watergate inquiry. They involve Congress using its broad authority to investigate suspicions of wrongdoing by public officials and private citizens whose actions require legislative action. 

Confirmation hearings only happen in the Senate and involve questioning presidential appointees to executive and judicial positions, within its jurisdictions. For instance, the Secretary of a federal executive department, like the Department of Labor, needs to be confirmed. However, not all appointments need confirmation. As of 2016, around 1,200 presidential appointments require Senate confirmation, while 353 do not. 

Additionally, ratification and field hearings are two rarer types of hearings. Ratification hearings involve the Senate agreeing to ratify treaties that the executive branch negotiates with foreign governments, and are required by the Constitution. Field hearings are Congressional hearings held outside of D.C and can serve a variety of purposes, from attracting media attention to an issue to reinforcing a committee member’s relationship with their constituents.

Although the vast majority of Congressional hearings are open to the public, there are circumstances under which Congress can close them. These circumstances include topics that involve national security information, committee personnel, personal privacy violations of an individual, identities related to law enforcement activities, certain kinds of confidential financial or commercial information, and information that laws require to be kept confidential.

Applying It

Congressional hearings have historically played an important part in American politics, such as in the Watergate hearing. In 1973, the Senate formed a special committee to investigate the break-in at the Democratic National Convention headquarters and any wrongdoing or criminal activity during the 1972 presidential election. The hearing played a critical role in gathering evidence against President Nixon and several of his officials, resulting in forty indictments and numerous convictions. The media televised the hearing live, and the reactions led to the impeachment process against President Nixon, and his eventual resignation. Congressional committees similarly investigated President Trump and his administration from 2019-2020, though with different results.

Critics say that while Congressional hearings were originally intended as an opportunity for legislators to educate themselves, they have devolved into grandstanding politicians, partisan battles, and drawn-out wastes of time since they began to be televised around the 1950s. Defenders of the hearings argue that they can still contribute to the public good, such as by investigating CEOs like John Stumpf, whose bank, Wells Fargo, had set up millions of fake bank accounts under its customers’ names. A week after his hearing, Stumpf agreed to give up almost $41 million in performance pay. And Heather Bresch, a chief executive from Mylan, Inc., was sternly reprimanded and criticized for the high prices of the EpiPens her business produces. 

Hearings have the power to publicly shame others, and while it can be a double-edged sword, they play a critical role in America’s democratic process. The Senate Library has said that “Hearings are among the most important publications originating in Congress.” They have their flaws, but they still help inform the American public about what is going on in politics.

Think Further

  1. Which do you think is the most important type of hearing? Why?
  2. Do you think hearings are an effective use of lawmakers’ time? Why or why not?
  3. Are hearings still useful in today’s world? Why or why not?

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Learn More

  1. Congressional Hearings. www.govinfo.gov, https://www.govinfo.gov/help/chrg#about. 
  2. Congressional Hearings | Law Library of Congress. www.loc.gov, https://www.loc.gov/law/find/hearings.php.
  3. Gebelhoff, Robert. “Why Congressional Hearings Still Matter.” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/09/30/why-congressional-hearings-still-matter/.
  4. Godfrey, Russell Berman, Elaine. “The Closed-Door Impeachment.” The Atlantic, 19 Oct. 2019. www.theatlantic.com, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/10/closed-door-impeachment/600355/.
  5. U.S. Senate: Watergate Leaks Lead to Open Hearings. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Watergate_Investigation.htm.