Congress ended up in some hot water recently—and for once, lawmakers did little to cause the trouble. At a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution hearing on legislation to reauthorize the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, television personality and hearing witness Jon Stewart went on a rant.
Noting many empty spaces on the committee dais, Stewart said, “You should be ashamed of yourselves for those that aren’t here, but you won’t be, because accountability doesn’t appear to be something that occurs in this chamber.” Noting that lawmakers tweeted about never forgetting the heroes of 9/11 on that sad anniversary, he accused them of “callous indifference and rank hypocrisy.”
Unfortunately, the reality proved far different than Stewart’s tirade would suggest. In both this specific case and in general, most members of Congress do care—not least because their voters demand that they do.
1. The Hearing Wasn’t Really Empty
As a reporter pointed out on Twitter, most subcommittee members did attend the hearing. But because the hearing took place in the full committee hearing room—that has a dais where all the members of the full committee can sit—the space looked empty:
This was a subcommittee hearing, so only 14 of the 41 committee members were slated to attend, this is whyJon Stewart saw a lot of empty chairs. Of the 14, two were absent: @GReschenthaler and @RepSwalwell, both are cosponsors of the bill, which is expected to easily pass.
— Gloria Staebler (@gastaebler) June 12, 2019
Holding a hearing in a bigger room than was actually required doesn’t represent “callous indifference and rank hypocrisy” so much as Congress not prioritizing the “production values” Stewart might find on a typical television or film set.
2. The Bill Ended Up Passing Anyway
On the day after the hearing, the full House Judiciary Committee approved the legislation by voice vote—i.e., unanimously. If any members are in fact indifferent to the 9/11 bill, they also didn’t care enough to object to it either. So why won’t Stewart take the proverbial yes for an answer?
3. Members of Congress Juggle Lots of Priorities
Because I’ve worked in both the House and Senate, I would use many words to describe the average member of Congress, but “lazy” and “indifferent” don’t often come to mind. Members sit on multiple committees, and multiple subcommittees within those committees. They often have to hop back and forth between hearings, and between the various congressional office buildings, to monitor witness testimony and ask questions.
On top of as many as half a dozen committee hearings and markups in a typical legislative workweek, members of Congress also have to juggle votes and speeches on the House and Senate floor, meetings with constituents, time with their staff to manage the office and discuss priorities, and—yes—raise funds for their re-election.
It might seem callous for a member to take the “drive-by” approach to a hearing—show up, ask questions, then leave—but frankly, most members of Congress don’t have time in their schedules to spend hours listening to witnesses speak at a hearing.
4. Most Congressional Hearings Are Boring
This might sound impolitic, or to use Stewart’s phrasing show “callous indifference,” but it’s true. Most of the substance behind a hearing occurs not in the oral remarks and questioning, but the written testimony witnesses submit beforehand.
Take, for instance, Wednesday’s hearing on single-payer health care. The Hill called the hearing “mostly partisan and light on substance, with Members using their allotted time to rail for or against the proposal instead of questioning the panel of health care experts and advocates at the witness table.”
I watched much of the four-hour affair, and the publication delivered a spot-on description. Most members used their five minutes for “questions” to give a four-minute speech, followed by a softball inquiry or two to a friendly witness: “Don’t you agree with my point?” I spent the last two hours wondering how many more lawmakers had yet to ask their “questions,” so the hearing could mercifully conclude.
As I noted recently, most members of Congress don’t ask particularly sharp or hard-hitting questions—and in many cases, don’t ask questions at all. I could do with far fewer hearings myself, or at least proceedings that replace the oral element with written testimony. But congressional committees hold hearings to signal their priorities, and establish a written record for future legislative action. I wouldn’t call congressional hearings entirely theatrical in nature, but they do have a strong theatrical element.
5. The Alternatives Are Far Worse
If Stewart wants to have members of Congress sitting attentively at their desks for the full duration of congressional hearings, Congress really only has two options: It can hold fewer hearings, or expand its membership.
The first would disappoint many issues, causes, and organizations, who want congressional committees to take time to spotlight “their” issue. It would make Congress a less diverse institution, with a smaller bandwidth to examine the many national and international issues worthy of attention from policy-makers.
It would also subject Congress to the equivalent of a “heckler’s veto,” whereby the few hearings committees did hold would focus on issues with celebrity supporters—to prevent rants like Stewart’s from putting Congress in a bad light—rather than unheralded topics that might warrant greater attention.
As to the second, some numbers might put the issue in perspective. The Constitution originally suggested that every member of Congress would represent 30,000 constituents. At that rate, and given a population of around 330 million, the House of Representatives would currently have 11,000 members—more than 25 times its current size.
Such an enormous legislative body would not just become unwieldy, it would raise federal spending. According to the Republican Study Committee, the House of Representatives has proposed $3.97 billion in spending on its operations over the next fiscal year. If an increase in the size of the House led to a proportional increase in spending, expansion to the size originally contemplated by the Constitution would result in roughly $100 billion in spending on members of Congress and their staffs—a figure the public would likely find unacceptable.
Congress has many faults worth addressing and reforming. But Stewart’s comments notwithstanding, compelling greater lawmaker attendance at hearings does not rank high on that list.