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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Hard of Hearings?

June 23, 2017

What’s with Congress?  Repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act without a single House or Senate committee hearing?

Ignore the cumulative expertise of Republican and Democratic committee members in shaping dramatically new legislation? Ignore the expertise of advocacy groups and independent experts in shaping dramatically different policies? Ignore the personal stories across the spectrum — from individual citizens, employers, insurers, health care providers — that could show lawmakers the negative and positive impacts of Obamacare and its potential replacements?

What is the majority leadership afraid of? They still have the votes to win after a public airing at heated committee hearings on controversial topics –as demonstrated by the confirmation of the troubled Cabinet nominations of Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions.

And beyond today’s hot-button issues, why is the leadership eviscerating the crucial and traditional information-gathering role of the committee hearing system?

Of course, we remember that the Michigan Legislature has done the same thing: rushed through non-emergency bills without committee hearings to minimize public attention and public input.

That’s nothing to be proud of — whether in Lansing or in Washington — under democratic governance.

I second what U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, recently told the New York Times about the health care legislation: “I’ve said from Day 1, and I’ll say it again. The process is better if you do it in public, and that people get buy-in along the way and understand what’s going on. Obviously, that’s not the route that is being taken.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s response that there have been “gazillions of hearings on this subject” is meaningless since none of those hearings addressed the specific legislation that emerged from the House or might emerge from the Senate and an eventual conference committee. And of course, many members of Congress are serving their first term and, thus, weren’t present for those gazillions of hearings that McConnell points to.

Here’s how Indiana University’s Center on Representative Government describes the first five stages in the normal congressional lawmaking process:

  1. Bill introduction
  2. Referral to committee(s)
  3. Committee hearings
  4. Committee mark-up
  5. Committee report

In other words, bills usually don’t get reported out of committee and on to the floor until hearings are done.

“Although not required,” the Center on Representative Government says,” most committee’s will begin a bill’s consideration by holding public hearings. Hearings may focus on a specific bill or alternative bills dealing with the same subject matter. When holding a hearing, the committee will usually call expert witnesses, occasionally average citizens to dramatize a problem with a personal story, members of Congress with experience in the matter and executive branch officials, to explain their actions or inactions.”

A 2016 study by three University of Texas Austin government experts about the role of congressional committees in an increasingly hyper-partisan political environment observed, “Committee hearings are where member perceptions and attitudes can be influenced by the nature of the information and provide a focal point where legislative staff get up to speed on a policy problem, yet anecdotal evidence suggests that this important process has changed. Committees are holding fewer hearings each year, and minority party members increasingly opt for dilatory strategies rather than seriously engage debate on the issues. Congressional information processing has changed as members find fewer benefits to focusing on their committee work, which, in turn, amplifies the dysfunction and breakdowns in problem-solving.”

And that assessment by U-T’s Jonathan Lewallen, Sean Theriault and Bryan Jones came before the simultaneous election of Donald Trump and a GOP majority in both chambers led to a worsening of the polarized situation.  Senate Democrats, including Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, have introduced legislation to mandate at least one committee hearing for any bill being passed under the fast-track process — known as reconciliation — being used for the health care legislation.  The “No Hearing, No Vote” Act (S. 1376) “is unlikely to be passed in the Senate,” The Hill dryly observed.  And don’t expect even a hearing on the bill. 

I’ll end with a personal journalistic observation on another important benefit of hearings.

I began attending congressional hearings as a U.S. House aide right after college and then moved to state legislative hearings as a Capitol reporter in Albany, New York, and Lansing, so I know how the failure to hold public hearings has another significant negative impact. It deprives reporters of the chance to grab lawmakers entering and leaving the committee rooms for impromptu interviews on any topic — not only the subject of the hearings. That makes it harder for evasive or recalcitrant lawmakers to avoid face-to-face conversations than it is for them to ignore phone messages, texts and emails from enquiring reporters.

That, too, is an essential part of democratic governance.

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

June 22, 2017 · Filed under Freedman



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