Three Reforms That Congressional Committees Should Institute

Maya L. Kornberg

Committees are essential institutions in Congress. My book, Inside Congressional Committees: Function and Dysfunction in the Legislative Process, unpacks the contemporary legislative process to show what is working, what isn’t, and what can be changed. Based on my research, here are three reforms that can strengthen congressional committees.

1. Create Outside Advisory Boards

Committee staff shape hearings. Despite this, committee staff frequently lack the expertise needed to handle complex issues. Indeed, only 38 percent of staffers hold advanced degrees, with only 2 percent holding PhDs. The average staffer has served in their current role for about three years. This limited experience exposes staff to lobby manipulation. On the Senate Judiciary Committee, a staffer seconded from the Justice Department described how his background knowledge of the issue made a difference to interactions with lobbyists: “If you’ve got like a, you know, a twenty-three-year-old staffer fresh out of college, they don’t know anything about banking law. And it’s easy for a banking lobbyist to come in and say, hey, let me explain the world to you. Here you go. Here’s a bill that does what you want. Just trust me.”

In addition, committee staffers often invite witnesses who they or their chair know personally, resulting in a bias towards certain professional, geographic, educational, and personal networks. Witnesses are frequently chosen to testify because of who they know.

Committees could create outside advisory boards that would advise committees on technical matters. These boards would serve not only the committee chairs but the minority members as well, and both sides would decide together which experts should sit on the panel. The advisory board for each committee would be composed of experts in that field, and it would outlive a single chair’s term. Such an advisory board would also limit the power of lobbies, educate staff, and strengthen professionalism.

2. Hybrid Hearings

American society has evolved over the past century through the rapid uptake of technological advancement in every facet of professional life. In the age of the internet and modern technology, much of today’s business world has already been retooled so that it is not so location-specific. Although congressional committees have yet to catch up, the COVID-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst for committees to start holding virtual hearings.

Witnesses testify and members all join and ask questions in video hearings just as they do in regular hearings. The only difference is that members are free to spend time in their districts and tune in for a few hours rather than flying in for several days. While scheduling issues may seem insignificant, they are of great consequence to members. Many members are part of the “Tuesday to Thursday” club, spending only Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in Washington, D.C. Hearings overlap and, as a result, many hearing rooms are half empty, with members present only during their five minutes of questioning time. Video hearings allow for more scheduling flexibility and engagement by members.

When I asked the digital director working for a Democratic senator if these virtual hearings will continue once the pandemic ends, she answered, “I think people have appreciated being able to be virtual right now and that that infrastructure has been built out.” The fact that the pandemic showed that virtual hearings are possible makes it more likely for them to continue.

Committees may have been founded at a time when members would ride to the Capitol in horse-drawn carriages to attend hearings, but congresspeople live in and must adjust to today’s world by maintaining COVID-19 hybrid practices.

3. Hold More Hearings Outside of Congress

Another 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 book tells the stories of the House Agriculture Committee’s 2018 “Farm Bill Listening Tour” as an example. The committee traveled around the country to hear from local farmers. Instead of the usual 5–10-minute formal presentations by invited witnesses, community members could simply turn up and participate in an open-mic session. 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.”

Holding more field hearings outside of Congress could broaden the spectrum of voices committees hear from.

Inside Congressional Committees explains these and other changes that committees can institute to strengthen the legislative process.

Maya L. Kornberg leads research for the Elections and Government Program at NYU Law’s Brennan Center for Justice. She is the author of Inside Congressional Committees: Function and Dysfunction in the Legislative Process.

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