Thursday, October 24, 2013

Quick Oversight Hearing Primer

I'm not watching the big House Obamacare oversight hearing this morning, but half my twitter stream is, and we've reached the point in which they're complaining that we're not going to learn anything.

Here's why they are actually very useful. Even when they're boring.

Time for a quick primer. Congressional oversight hearings are mostly useful because they exist. The actual hearing itself? Not much usually happens. But the threat of being called to account, and then the process of being called to account, should and probably does put pressure on executive branch agencies and departments. That's a good thing!

There's also a part of it which is just getting everyone on record in a formal setting. That's not going to be very informative, usually, at least for attentive observers, since all anyone is going to do is to confirm what's already out there. But there really is some utility to having these things on record, officially out of the mouths of those who are supposed to be getting things done.

Remember that this is part of separated institutions sharing powers; oversight hearings are one tool Congress has to compete over who gets to execute the laws, and how those laws will be executed. So the public part can be very bland but still be a key part of bullying bureaucrats, administration officials, and outside contractors (among other things, a bland hearing can be their reward for being bullied).

Moreover, since the public testimony might be irrelevant to the point of having the hearing, individual committee members can use the time for producing clips that can run on local TV news shows. Every once in a while that will make good TV, but usually not. Don't forget; the witnesses usually have an interest in not making news, and so if they're smart they'll leak things out beforehand in order to better manage the spin. Which again might make the actual hearing boring even if it's been successful in generating information that would otherwise have remained unavailable.

Conclusion: if everyone does their job properly, most oversight hearings will be both (1) boring, uninformative (especially to beat reporters who know the subject) occasions for the worst self-aggrandizing politician behavior; and, (2) a highly useful and functional part of the process of separated institutions sharing powers.

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