US Congressional hearings: Who hears whom and why

A congressional hearing is a well-developed and structured method by which members of the two houses — the Senate and the House of Representatives — collect and analyse information on various matters of interest to the polity and the country.

Updated: April 13, 2018 6:52:11 am
US Congressional hearings: Who hears whom and why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before congressional committees regarding his company’s use and protection of user data. (Source: AP Photo)

What’s a congressional hearing? How do they work?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony — before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday, and the next day before the House Energy and Commerce Committee — came in the wake of allegations that Cambridge Analytica, a company linked to President Donald Trump’s campaign, had accessed data of millions of users from the social networking site that was used to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

What is a US congressional hearing?

A congressional hearing is a well-developed and structured method by which members of the two houses — the Senate and the House of Representatives — collect and analyse information on various matters of interest to the polity and the country. There are legislative hearings, which have to do with policy measures; and oversight hearings, which monitor government programmes. Besides, Congress holds investigative hearings into suspected wrongdoings by public officials and by private citizens. Watergate, the Iran-contra deal and the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi are among the high-profile congressional hearings. More recently, the senate intelligence committee held hearings on alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections.

Who conducts these hearings?

The hearings are conducted by committees. A committee is usually a panel of chamber members who are tasked with developing legislation, holding hearings and conducting oversight. Depending on the type of committee, they are either elected by the chamber, or appointed by the Speaker. Committees do most of the legislative work. The system is similar to the Indian parliamentary committees but far more powerful. Each committee has its own jurisdiction. There are 20 active Standing Committees in the House of Representatives and 16 in the Senate. There are also six joint committees. In addition, the House has a Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, while the Senate has four Special committees, including one on intelligence. Committees on occasion have joint hearings, like they did for Zuckerberg’s testimony.

What is their composition?

Every committee has an all-powerful chair, who is drawn from the majority party in the chamber, and “ranking” members. The minority party appoints a shadow chair. The chair decides which proposals the committee will consider first, and which can be pushed back — this is usually a political decision. A committee could typically have between a dozen and 40 members.

How do committees decide which subjects need to be heard?

A committee receives many proposals for hearings from several quarters, including from members of the two chambers, but decides what it will take by assessing its “importance to the nation”, to specific political and other lobbies, and to the political leadership of the country. It also decides if the issue fits in with its own goals and the political message that it wants to send out.

Are these hearings public?

Yes, almost always. Open hearings, covered extensively by the media, are seen as a way to rally public support for or against an issue. But committees have the power to “close” a hearing for reasons of national security, or for protecting the privacy and reputation of an individual, for securing law-enforcement operations, or if the witness is to reveal information that is protected by law.

Do witnesses enjoy certain rights?

Yes, they have protections granted to them by the Constitution — witnesses may refuse a committee subpoena by citing the right to free speech, assembly, or petition. They enjoy protection against self-incrimination. Several committees provide witnesses the right to have their counsel present during testimony.

What happens after the hearing?

The reports are published and become a matter of public record. But last year, the Trump administration started taking steps to ensure the classified 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture techniques remained outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.

Do Indian parliamentary committees work in the same way?

The Indian system is modeled on the British parliamentary committee system. There are two kinds of committees in India, Standing committees — including financial committees, department committees, and other committees such as business advisory committees — and the ad hoc committees that are appointed for a specific purpose. One type of ad hoc committee is the joint parliamentary committee. The most high-profile of the JPCs have been investigative in nature — the JPC on Bofors, Harshad Mehta Stock Exchange scam, and the 2G spectrum case. The JPCs have summoned and questioned experts, government officials and others. Refusing a summons from a JPC constitutes contempt. However, unlike the US and British systems, India does not have a system of public hearings, and all proceedings are closed to the media.

Compiled from Agencies

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