Hearings and Briefings

The two major methods of educating Members of Congress and their staffs are briefings and hearings.  Since these two terms come up regularly, I thought it would be helpful to explore the similarities and differences.  (I think it was Ms. Edison, my 11th grade English teacher who taught me the “compare and contrast” essay.  Who knew it could come in handy after all this time?)

Hearings have been in the news lately in terms of confirming President Obama’s nominations for various Cabinet-level positions or in the exploration of accountability in attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi.  A hearing is held by a committee, and it is generally a fact-finding opportunity for the Members of Congress.  In the rooms for Committees such as Armed Services, Judiciary, and Environment and Public Works, the Members sit in a horseshoe of seats with a table or desk facing them for the person or people testifying.  There is usually a bench immediately behind each member to have a staff member perched; the rest of the staff, the press, and the general public sit in chairs behind the witness(es).  Most of the hearings this month have included overflow space in a nearby committee room with a TV feed of the proceedings.

Each committee has different rules for hearings.  There are nearly always opening statements by the Chair and Ranking Member; sometimes those are followed by opening statements from the other members present.  The testimony follows, which is often also provided in writing in advance.  The witnesses are held to a certain time limit for their testimony, since the focus of the hearing is actually the question and answer time.  Once the testimony has finished, the Senators are each allocated time, usually five or seven minutes, to ask questions and receive answers.  The staff  have usually looked over the witnesses’ written statements and have provided a variety of questions for their Senators to choose from.  That variety is important because the order of questioning is generally Chair, Ranking member, then by seniority of the Senators present before the gavel falls at the start of the hearing, followed by the order of arrival, but always alternating between the majority and minority parties.  Yes, that sounds terribly complex, but eventually you get the hang of it.  If your Senator is far down the line of questioners, then it is important to have some very creative questions since other Senators are likely to have taken your best ones by the time it’s your Senator’s turn.

The tone at hearings can be anything from mildly contentious to seriously combative.  In many ways, hearings are quite similar to faculty meetings in academia.  The motivations for asking questions in a faculty meeting can include wanting to learn the answer to a question or wanting everyone else to hear the answer that the questioner already knows.  Some people like making statements and having a few minutes of time in the spotlight.  In those cases, it can be a challenge to figure out exactly what the question is!  In other cases, a question is designed to score points off the witness; this strategy was the subject of several video clips during the Committees on Armed Forces hearings about Benghazi with Secretary Clinton.

Not all Senators come to all hearings either, unless the hearing is likely to be televised.  Often Senators will come in and out as their juggle their multiple overlapping schedule commitments. It’s the job of the Senator’s staff to make sure that he or she is in place in time to get his or her turn asking questions.

As a side note, in the past I’ve compared Senate offices to sports bars because of all the televisions.  That was extremely evident during Secretary Clinton’s appearances before the Senate and House committees.  In my office, we did learn that it was important that all of the televisions be tuned to the same channel or the slight time delays in the sound created a stadium-like echo in our room.  I’m sure offices around the Senate resounded with cheering or booing as plays were attempted and points were scored by the hearing participants.  Our office certainly had its raucous moments.  If you think my idea of entertainment has been seriously warped by my experiences this year, I tend to agree.  But back to my essay.

In contrast to hearings, which focus on questions from Senators and whose proceedings are on the record, briefings focus on educating the Congressional staff on a certain issue, and those proceedings are not recorded.  Briefings can be organized by Committees, which are a bit more formal, but they may also be organized by nearly any outside group as a means of conveying their message.  I believe the limitation is that if the briefing is held on the Hill, then it must be at least nominally sponsored by a member of Congress.  Briefings are often also held in Committee rooms, but the table for the speakers faces the audience, and the Members’ chairs are empty.

I have gone to some excellent briefings, and I have gone to some highly questionable briefings.  I have learned about the ongoing drought from last year, its impacts, and future projections.  I went to NOAA 101, which was an introduction to that agency, and which I’ll write about in the future.  I also went to a briefing by a number of trade groups who were unhappy with a particular regulation, and I confess that as a scientist, it pained me to listen to their arguments which were passionate, but seemed somewhat lacking in reliable facts.  My favorite comment was that when a mixture contained 10 % of a particular ingredient, that combination resulted in 3% oxygen in the mix.  Then the proportion was bumped up to 15% of that ingredient, the oxygen increased to 5-6%.  Ummm, not by my math.  So some briefings involve very reliable information, and some are more dubious.

In the healthcare area, there are numerous briefings to highlight particular conditions or diseases.  I confess to a small amount of jealousy that our healthcare Fellow seems to return from lunch briefings having had snacks!  She often snags a chocolate chip cookie for me, but I just don’t understand why people in the energy and environment sector don’t seem prone to think about staffers’ stomachs.  I obviously didn’t choose my specialty field using the right parameters.

I went to an outstanding climate change briefing sponsored by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which featured four Ph.D. scientists to discuss climate change from the perspectives of atmosphere, weather, oceans, and public health.  The requisite cadre of Fellows was present, and we were all quite amused by Senator Boxer’s enthusiasm at having FOUR doctors present!  They were introduced as, “our first doctor,” “our second doctor” and so forth.  The Fellows, Ph.D.-holders all, just smirked at each other.





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