The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Plenty of congressional hearings are not circuses. Here’s how we know.

Then-deputy assistant FBI director Peter Strzok waits to testify before a joint House committee hearing on July 12. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The summer’s televised hearings on Capitol Hill have seemed more circus than serious investigation. Two House panels spent hours grilling former FBI agent Peter Strzok in what one CNN analyst called a “theatrical display.” That was followed by another gasp-worthy faceoff at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing between lawmakers and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

But congressional hearings are not just theater. Although the overall number of committee hearings devoted to policy problems as well as the number of policy staff are both declining, committee hearings can bring lawmakers diverse and analytical information. Under the right conditions, lawmakers might even learn from these interactions.

This is how I did my research

I gauged the quality of information presented at committee hearings by analyzing the content of a sample of 678 witness testimonies during the 114th Congress (2015-16). I collected these testimonies from 120 congressional hearings held by four committees: Senate Foreign Relations, Senate Commerce, House Agriculture and House Science.

To determine whether lawmakers heard both sides of an argument, I used a dictionary of positive and negative words to score the slant of each witness’s testimony. I then scored each hearing based on the number of predominantly positive transcripts (those with more positive than negative words) divided by the total number of testimonies in that hearing. A perfectly “balanced” hearing scores 0.5, meaning that positive and negative witness testimonies were evenly balanced.

Next, I used Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software to analyze the language of the 678 pieces of testimony. Segments are scored 1-100, going from low to high. Analytical language captures the degree to which speakers employ language that suggests formal, logical and hierarchical thinking patterns.

Finally, I relied on interviews to explore the ways in which lawmakers learn from testimony. I interviewed a sample of 50 people including lawmakers, witnesses and staff.

Why was the Peter Strzok hearing such a circus? Because Congress wanted it that way.

Here’s what I found.

1. Committee witnesses tend to offer sophisticated arguments

Each committee received a high average analytical language score — capturing the combined average score of all the witnesses who testified before that committee. This suggests that the witnesses are presenting analytical and logical approaches to the hearing’s topic. Across the four committees studied, the average level of analytical level was roughly 94. Let’s put that score in perspective: the language used in New York Times articles averages just under 93. By contrast, a sample of segments of natural speech averages around 19.

Some witnesses received particularly high analytical scores, above 98. Those included an astrophysicist, a senior fellow at a think tank and expert on East Asia, a former general counsel of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and an administrator from the National Telecommunications Administration. High scores appeared across a range of sectors and professions.

2. Most but not all committees receive fairly balanced testimony

Hearings also tend to bring together panels of witnesses that provide arguments on both sides of a debate — albeit to varying degrees. The average balance score of the hearings I studied was 0.84. This means that this sample of hearings on the whole was skewed toward arguments portraying a policy in a positive light. Although panels skewed toward supporting the policy, at least some witnesses presented an opposing view. This isn’t surprising, given House and Senate “minority witness” rules that guarantee that the minority party can call witnesses, except for hearings of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Committees do vary in how much balance their witnesses offer. The graph below shows that of the four I examined, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, known for its bipartisan culture, achieves the most balance, while House Agriculture hearings are the most lopsided.

That said, even a Republican lawmaker on the agriculture committee told me, “I think the more that you can get together and hear somebody else’s perspective of why they’re arguing a certain way or fighting for a certain thing kind of makes you think, you know what, I didn’t think of that.”

If Congress keeps cutting its staff, who is writing your laws? You may not like the answer.

3. Some lawmakers still see hearings as a forum for learning

Lawmakers tend to differentiate among different types of committee hearings. When asked their views about the value of hearings, my sources drew distinctions between “theatrical” hearings (in which witnesses were labeled by their association with a political administration or partisan organization, as with the Strzok and Pompeo hearings) and more “educational” hearings on technical, uncontentious topics with nonpartisan experts.

For example, an “educational” hearing in the House Science Committee, focused on STEM education statistics, brought in witnesses who were not publicly associated with a partisan ideology. In contrast, a “theatrical” hearing on climate change in the same committee involved a panel of witnesses publicly known to be skeptical about climate change.

Lawmakers termed the educational hearings opportunities to hear from specialists who bring expertise to Congress that lawmakers typically lack. A senior Democratic senator told me that especially in hearings on issues in which he does not have expertise, he “counts on experts for advice on what to do.”

Some also mentioned what I call “deliberative hearings.” Unlike “educational” hearings on technical issues, “deliberative” hearings involve a value judgment — say, the question of how many people should be entitled to welfare benefits.

Deliberative hearings might not flip votes overnight or convert opponents to supporters. But they offer an opportunity to learn from and legitimize the perspectives of witnesses and fellow committee members with whom a member of Congress might ordinarily disagree. A senior Democratic lawmaker explained that “expert testimony tends to give you … [an opportunity] to consider, or at least understand, the opposing point of view or … you might hear one of the majority experts make a point, you think … I hadn’t thought about that, that makes a lot of sense.”

Theatrical hearings dominate headlines. But they do not reveal the broader range of information that can be conveyed in hearings. Out of the spotlight, committee hearings can introduce analytical information and a variety of viewpoints. To the degree that lawmakers heed what they hear in such settings, hearings have the potential to encourage more informed decision-making on Capitol Hill.

Maya Kornberg is a PhD candidate in politics at Oxford University.