You can take a congressperson outta Washington …

Last week the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held its first hearing. One of its tasks is to recommend ways to reform congressional procedures. Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), the committee’s Democratic chair, identified adjustments to the congressional calendar as a key area that the committee will explore. I argue that one solution to Washington’s calendar problem is holding more hearings outside of Washington.

While scheduling issues may seem insignificant to people outside of the beltway, they are of great consequence to members.  Today the de facto congressional schedule runs from Tuesday morning to Thursday afternoon. Hearings overlap and members have too much to do in too little time.  As a result, many hearing rooms are half empty, with members present only during their five minutes of questioning time.

The shift in member work schedules dates back to the 1990s, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich encouraged members to commute to Washington for part of the week rather than relocate with their families. Scholars have since suggested different revisions to the House calendar to balance Washington and district time.  Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, for example, suggested a two weeks on, two weeks off schedule. They wrote, “that kind of schedule change may sound trivial — it is not. If members were at the Capitol for extended periods…they would interact with each other more frequently and more directly, including across party lines, developing interpersonal relationships…full weeks spent in Washington would provide Congress with more opportunities to do extended legislating — more time to have real debate or discussion…. more opportunities to do real hearings.” Ornstein later called for a schedule of three full weeks in Washington, followed by one week in local districts. Various iterations of these scheduling reforms have since been suggested.

While I agree with Mann and Ornstein’s analysis of the advantages of full weeks in Washington, in reality even this schedule would prove problematic. Most of the members’ spouses and children of now live permanently in their home states rather than in Washington, and members  may not want to spend half of every month away from their families. The endless need to campaign and fundraise in their districts provides yet another incentive for politicians to spend more time away from Washington.  For all of these reasons, congressional schedules need to adapt to the modern age of travel and technology.

I suggest that one solution to the scheduling problem is to hold more “field hearings” outside of Washington. Committees already hold such hearings sporadically. Members travel to different states to speak to local stakeholders or to visit local facilities or businesses. My research on congressional committees in the contemporary Congress reveals that holding more regular field hearings has three important benefits: 1) Field hearings would free committees from the Tuesday to Thursday trap; 2) Leaving Washington may alleviate partisan strife, and; 3) New locations would broaden the pool of witnesses who could testify.

If members are already pulled away from Washington, holding hearings outside of Washington may increase member participation. Committees include members from all over the country. Therefore, I suggest that at the beginning of each session, committee staff take stock of where committee members live and schedule one field hearing per month in a different district.  The field hearing locations would change every month to accommodate the different home regions of members. Rather than having to juggle three conflicting hearings on Wednesdays at 10 am in Washington, for example, members could travel a shorter distance during their time at home. This small change may reduce the time and cost of hearings and consequently increase participation.

In addition to the logistical advantages field hearings offer, my research reveals that field hearings are less prone to the partisanship that characterizes many Washington hearings. I interviewed 53 representatives, senators, personal and committee staff members, and witnesses who have testified in congressional hearings. The interviewees stressed that trips outside of Washington prove more effective in overcoming partisanship and creating positive interactions between members.  For example, in the lead up to passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the House Agriculture Committee held field hearings in different states to meet with local farmers and stakeholders. When asked about the listening tour, a Republican on the committee told me, “you know what else was neat about it?  Is (that) you have Republicans and Democrats coming together, members of Congress……. we’re there with Republicans and Democrats and we just were creating that camaraderie that you don’t have up here that they got rid of when Newt Gingrich told everybody to go home.” His comments suggest that outside of the Washington echo chambers, members are freer to socialize and see different sides of one another.

A former staffer on the House Commerce Committee reinforced this point. He explained that congressional delegation (“codel”) trips that bring together members and their families outside of Washington recreate some of the bipartisanship that used to exist in Washington. A Democratic congressman on the House Science Committee joked that on one uniquely isolated educational expedition, he was in a submarine under the North Pole with a prominent Republican congressman and they had lots of time to bond and talk. “It’s a way to talk to the individual members,” another congressman explained. Like “codel” trips, field hearings produce the positive cross-party interactions that modern day Washington lacks.

Hearings outside of Washington may also amplify local accounts from stakeholders. Interviews with committee staffers illustrated that staff tend to invite witnesses who they or the chairman already know, and they vet witnesses to make sure that they convey the perspective the majority wants to advance. This inevitably shrinks and taints the pool of witnesses who testify in committee hearings. Field hearings, by contrast, may broaden the number of voices the committee hears from. A Democratic congresswoman on the House Agriculture Committee said of the people who spoke on the listening tour, “they aren’t experts. They are actually people in the community, farming or providing insurance for farmers’ businesses…… It isn’t as if the chairman is getting three people providing data or information the way he likes and then providing one or two for minority staff position.”

In addition, committees typically do not pay for witnesses to travel to Washington, so if the committee travels to them in field hearings, members may hear from a wider array of voices. A Republican congressman on the House Agriculture Committee described the difference between the formal hearings in Washington and the Farm Bill listening tour, saying of the formal hearings, “you’re limited in how many people can participate.  The listening sessions…was neat because there’s 200-300 people in a room that could go up to a microphone and they would just ask questions, so we could hear from them what was of interest for the next farm bill.  So, we had a lot more input, I think it was a lot more open.” His statement highlights the extensive reach of field hearings.

The new Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress took an important step in recognizing that the congressional calendar needs to adapt to the modern Congress. As it explores ways to meet this need, the committee should consider introducing more field hearings into the calendar as an effective antidote to scheduling logistics, partisan strife, and tainted witness pools.

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Topics: Committees & Caucuses
Maya Kornberg
Maya Kornberg specializes in legislatures and legislative reform. She is a legislative studies specialist, currently leading research for a UNDP and I...