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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.

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