Do Members of Congress even show up to committee hearings?

aging committeeWhile there’s a lot of talk about the confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch or when FBI Director Jim Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee, most Congressional hearings aren’t filled with too much drama. There’s such a lack of drama that most Members of Congress can’t even be bothered to stay for the entire hearing — if they even show up at all.

A prime example of this can be seen at hearing held by the Senate’s Committee on Aging about how the opioid epidemic has led to many grandparents taking care of their grandchildren. For the entire committee hearing, there was only one Republican senator who actually showed up — the Committee’s chair, Susan Collins. The other eight simply couldn’t be bothered to show up.

It’s not a partisan issue either. On the Democratic side, it was only the ranking member, Sen. Bob Casey, who actually stayed for the entire hearing. Unlike the Republicans, however, there were some Democrats who actually showed up. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Joe Donnelly, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto all showed up to ask questions of the panelists and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand showed up to listen to some of the panel’s testimony.  The other three Democrats didn’t even make an appearance.

Now, one could argue that these senators didn’t miss much if they missed the prepared testimony. The hearing wasn’t designed to break any news and the testimony that the panel provided was simply a five minute summary of the written testimony they’d already submitted. At this hearing, and others, it was the questioning round that truly gave both the panelists an opportunity to expand on their statements and the politicians an opportunity to show where they might want to go with the issue. And that is why it’s disappointing some members (11 in the case of this hearing), couldn’t even show up to ask questions.

At the hearing, Sen. Susan Collins gave a shout out to C-Span viewers (which suggests a video record would be available) and mentioned that the record would remain open for two weeks if any senators had more questions to ask of the panelists. Combine this with how there were plenty of staffers present at the hearing and one could assume that any senator could get all the information he or she needed even if they weren’t present at the actual hearing. But there’s still something to be said for actually showing up and being present when the original dialogue is taking place.

While waiting for the hearing to begin today, for instance, I met a set of grandparents who traveled down from the Pittsburgh area for the hearing. They’re taking care of their two grandchildren (ages 8 and 12) because their daughter is suffering from opioid addiction and simply isn’t in a position to take care of her kids. As our conversation moved forward, I found out that part of the reason the 71 year old grandfather is still working is because his grandkids receive health insurance through his work. This was a concrete example of what the hearing was trying to investigate and I wouldn’t have necessarily heard about if I hadn’t actually been there.

With that being said, I’m not confident that we’ll see changes in attendance rates anytime soon. As one communications director for a Member of Congress put it to me, many elected officials consider these hearings to be “torture” and have binders full of briefing material anyways. Nonetheless, I am perhaps naively hopeful that the number of elected officials who are at these type of hearings and engage with the public might grow.

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