Why Congressional Hearings Aren't Worth Your Time

Aside from being boring, they're actually a poor way to learn about an issue.

April 22, 2013— -- There's a major immigration reform hearing in the Senate today. Don't bother watching it.

The general point of holding these hearings is so that members of Congress can debate a bill and let the public know what's going on. This hearing won't do either very well, according to Peter Levine, the director of CIRCLE, a Massachusetts-based organization that looks at civic engagement among young people.

Even though there will be two dozen experts testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, big hearings are often so politicized that they can't get to the essential facts about an issue.

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Some of the stumbling blocks: expert witnesses are typically selected to favor the party in the majority, and some of the speeches are literally scripted, with witnesses submitting their written testimony before the hearing starts.

"I'd be loath to say it's of no value," Levine said. "We want people to follow these important issues, and it's one way to do so. But it's not the greatest."

If you've ever watched one, you've probably seen members of Congress talking about an issue but not engaging in an actual dialogue, the way you might at the dinner table or in a classroom.

That's not how our Founding Fathers intended Congress to operate, according to Levine. Congress was created to be a place where ideas could be discussed and where the views of elected officials could actually evolve. James Madison called it listening to "the mild voice of reason" -- representing the people, but using deliberation to come to a final conclusion.

Ideally, congressional hearings should be places where real conversations take place. Some of the smaller, less important hearings are like that. But as a hearing grows in stature, it often turns into political theater. "When something is very high profile, they switch into entertainment mode," Levine said.

Overall, the hearings are symptomatic of a bigger issue -- that elected officials appear less and less able to have an actual conversation, either with the public or one another.

We deserve some of the blame, though. Voters tend to punish politicians who change their stance on an issue, calling them flip-floppers, when it's not always that simple.

"If we actually rewarded political leaders who showed deliberative values, it would make a difference," Levine said.

During a hearing last month on gun control, for example, one clip that drew a lot of attention was of a heated exchange between Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The exchange was less conversation and more one-upmanship.

We're only encouraging more of the same when we pass around those types of clips.

"Imagine if somebody showed evidence of actually listening at a hearing and that went viral," he said. "That would be interesting."