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Learning about legislative learning: Congressional hearings, organizational expertise, and the environmental movement

In January, we published an article, “Greening the Congressional record: environmental social movements and expertise-based access to the policy process,” in Environmental Politics. The impetus for the project was our desire to understand better how social movements impact the policy process. Prior research focuses on how social movements signal the strength of constituent interests to policymakers, but social movements also create and disseminate scientific knowledge to help achieve a movement’s policy goals.

Studying this pathway for legislative influence, however, requires figuring out who the legislature is listening to and, as importantly, when they are being listened to. The market for policy-relevant information is crowded. Successful interest organizations not only produce information, but also are able to get that information in front of the members who matter. At the same time, members seeking to write effective legislation should want access to the best possible information. And, one important venue where members can get that information is at public congressional hearings.

These three observations led to the two main hypotheses we test in the paper. First, social movements with issue expertise should testify more frequently when the legislature holds a hearing considering a specific bill than when the legislature is holding a hearing for another reason. Second, this difference should be bigger for social movements with issue expertise than for other interest organizations impacted by the policy change.

We focus, in particular, on conservation policy and the environmental movement, because environmental movement organizations like the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and World Wildlife Fund have been at the forefront of conservation research and environmental advocacy for over a century. Plus, many interest organizations that do not have particular expertise on environmental issues nevertheless have strong opinions about environmental conservation policy. Specifically, we collected data on every environmental protection hearing in the House of Representatives and every organization testifying at those hearings from 1988 to 2014. However, we think that the arguments we make in the paper apply to other policy areas, as well.

We find strong statistical support for our hypotheses. On average, around one additional environmental movement organization is invited to testify at environmental protection hearings that consider a specific piece of legislation than those that are exploratory or investigatory. This difference is bigger for environmental organizations than other kinds of organizations that testify before the Congress. We conclude that the expertise of environmental movement organizations gives them privileged access to the legislature when the legislature is considering legislation.

Here’s an example that reflects what we’re finding in the data. In September 2011, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing “to examine opportunities for energy development and job creation in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” The hearing explored a proposal from Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) to increase domestic oil production. There was no specific bill being considered. The hearing included testimony from a wide array of interests including the League of Conservation Voters (an environmental movement organization), the Alaska District Council of Laborers (a labor union), and Carlile Transportation Systems (a logistics company for the oil industry).

Compare that to a different hearing held two months earlier by the same committee “to consider a few bills that concern conservation reauthorization of specific species like tigers, rhinos, apes, and turtles.” The hearing included discussion of three conservation bills. The testimony at this hearing was considerably more specialized. Four of the six witnesses who testified represented environmental movement organizations (Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, Safari Club International, Ian Somerhalder Foundation, and Wildlife Conservation Society). The other two represented government organizations.

This is good news for political observers concerned about the legislature’s capacity to solve problems. We would be concerned if the legislature did not differentiate between organizations with policy expertise and those that did not have expertise when it comes time to craft legislation. In a policy space where many interests are loudly competing for attention, the study indicates that the legislature is being strategic about who they listen to — and they listen to the organizations with the most expertise.

The study also provides an important lesson for social movement organizations. The success of the environmental movement in the U.S. is both due to its capacity to organize the public in support of its goals and its ability to credibly generate scientific knowledge for the policy process. Further, these two different mechanisms for influencing the legislature occur at different moments in the policy process. Outsider tactics, like protests and rallies, bring attention to overlooked issues and influence legislative priorities. Insider tactics, like testifying before Congress, help to ensure that the policy instruments adopted by the Congress are capable of achieving their desired goals. This sort of ambidexterity is a crucial element in understanding how successful social movements achieve their policy goals.

Finally, the study highlights an important source of public data that has been underutilized in the social science literature on the legislative process. Thanks to the great work being done by Policy Agendas Project, we have comprehensive data on legislative hearings since 1946. Our major contribution was to go back and tie information about who was testifying at hearings to their data on what the hearing was about. Taken together, we get a novel picture on what kind of organizations are being publicly invited into the legislative process and, we think, a fairly accurate picture of how the Congress perceives the information landscape when it is making policy.

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Topics: Committees & Caucuses