Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress met, as you probably haven’t heard. That’s partly because it was a sober affair, with members dutifully listening to experts about improving how members legislate instead of giving speeches masquerading as questions. In fact, the committee recently approved new recommendations to improve how the House as a whole does business, calling for more civility, relying more on evidence and incorporating better data into the lawmaking process.
One sign that congressional policymaking needs more data and evidence is this: The House’s use of expert witnesses is at a generational low. In fact, Congress’s committees have been hearing from fewer and fewer voices over time.
Fewer witnesses are appearing before congressional committees
In our new research, we collect and code every identifiable witness who appeared before every standing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1971 and 2016, accounting for 435,293 witnesses appearing in 42,509 hearings over that 45-year period. Several patterns emerge from the data.
First, as you can see in the figure below, the number of witnesses appearing before Congress has sharply declined in recent decades. That number peaked in the 95th Congress (1977-1978), when House panels heard from 32,898 witnesses. By the 114th Congress (2015-2016), the number declined by nearly 80 percent, so that panels heard from only 6,632 witnesses.
Second, congressional hearings feature fewer witnesses on average today than they did in the past. In the 95th Congress (1977-1978), Congress heard from an average of 17.1 witnesses per hearing; by the 114th Congress (2015-2016), only 4.2 witnesses on average appeared. Recent scholarship and our own data suggest that witness appearances continue to fall. In the House Financial Services Committee, for example, the average number of witnesses per hearing fell to 3.7 during the 115th Congress (2017-2018) from 4.5 in the 114th Congress (2015-2016).
Legislators are taking the spotlight
Declining witness participation cannot be explained by tumbling numbers of committee hearings or bills introduced. As you can see in the figure below, although lawmakers introduced more bills during the 114th Congress than in the previous Congress, panels still heard from fewer witnesses than in the session before.
So, what are lawmakers doing instead of hearing from witnesses? They’re taking the limelight for themselves in ways that bring coverage in the news media. The media pays attention when a Cabinet secretary, a celebrity, or a well-known business tycoon appears before a congressional committee. But even congressional hearings on more-mundane policy matters can make the news when there’s a particularly heated exchange between legislators or when a legislator berates a witness or makes exceptional use of questioning time.
As these sorts of extraordinary moments spread across mainstream and social media, members of Congress and the public alike come to see hearings as occasions for lawmakers to get attention and embarrass political rivals, rather than as opportunities to gather objective information to help in legislating.
Witnesses shy away from hearings
These trends also result from witnesses’ increasing reluctance to appear before Congress. As part of our research, we interviewed several current and former federal government staffers and lobbyists to learn more about this troublesome trend.
A former House subcommittee policy director told us, “Nobody wants to testify anymore. We call and we ask for the [Cabinet] secretary. He won’t come. We ask for his deputy. He won’t come either.”
A former Trump administration official who now lobbies on Capitol Hill explained the trend this way:
Once, lawmakers gained important knowledge about significant public matters from congressional committee hearings. But, two things have changed. First, the decline in congressional civility, as a result of tight competition for control of the House, has lawmakers focused on competing for media attention rather than cooperating to make law. Second, House committees have ceded a great deal of lawmaking power to congressional leadership.
As a result, many congressional hearings have ceased to be substantive forums where lawmakers dig into details of public policy. Declining committee power affects lawmaking in other ways, too; nearly a third of the “special rules” that govern how the House considers bills puts them on the House floor before they’ve gone through the relevant committees.
How does all this affect lawmaking?
Hearing from far fewer witnesses hurts Congress’s lawmaking. Rank-and-file members have less information, of poorer quality, to guide decisions. Americans know less about what information goes into making law. And congressional committees become unable to meaningfully oversee the executive branch.
The modernization committee recommended a number of changes. Those include encouraging bipartisan committee events, such as agenda-setting retreats and working dinners; holding hearings in formats less amenable to grandstanding, such as sitting in a roundtable arrangement where Republican and Democratic members sit next to each other rather than on opposite sides of the room; and training members and staffers in civility and collaboration. If followed, these recommendations could help committees regain some of the respect and policymaking authority that they’ve lost in recent years, resulting in sounder public policy.
Of course, all that depends on whether party leaders are willing to lean on committees for policy advice, and whether committee leaders want to convene more meaningful hearings, call more witnesses and treat witnesses with respect when they appear.
John D. Rackey (@JDRackey) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Oklahoma.
Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the co-editor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform” (University of Chicago Press, 2020).