Do Congressional Hearings Still Matter?

Article excerpt

Fiery debates and close votes on the Senate and House floors win the headlines and the public's attention, but committee hearings are where Congress does much of its business.

There are three kinds of hearings--legislative, oversight, and confirmation. In earlier times, the legislative hearing was the most important, consistent with the founders' belief that Congress is the first branch of government. Since World War II, such hearings have produced seminal laws like the Taft-Hartley Act and the Marshall Plan.

In more recent, media-dominated years, the oversight or watchdog hearing has moved to the center of the congressional stage. Prominent examples of this kind of hearing include Watergate in the 1970s and Iran-Contra in the '80s.

Confirmation hearings produced infrequent fireworks until the modern era, when partisan disputes over nominations to the Supreme Court or the cabinet have almost become the norm. Examples include Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and proposed Defense Secretary John Tower.

The success or failure of a congressional hearing usually depends on the following factors: the subject and its timeliness; the chairman and his ability to keep the hearing on track; and the caliber of the witnesses. The chairman's importance can be seen from the performance of Sen. Sam Ervin in the Watergate hearings and that of Rep. …