Committees and hearings play a critical role in the operations of Congress. But how are members assigned to committees? And do congressional hearings actually advance legislation and investigations?
Kyle Brosnan, chief counsel for The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project, goes beneath the surface in today’s edition of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain how Congress really works and the critical role Capitol Hill staff play in those operations. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
Brosnan joins the show to conclude our three-part series on the way Congress operates. Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: Today, we’re pulling back the curtain on congressional committees and the purpose of congressional hearings with Kyle Brosnan, chief counsel for The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project. Prior to joining Heritage, Kyle served as chief counsel for the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations under ranking member Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Let’s start today by talking a little bit about committees. Give us the big picture. What is the point of congressional committees?
Kyle Brosnan: The point is that Congress has a very wide jurisdiction. They have a lot to do on their to-do list as the Article One legislative branch to write laws for the country. What the committees do is help Congress focus on particular subject matters for legislation.
House and Senate rules will create committees and give them what’s called legislative jurisdiction. Basically, those committees will have the authority to write laws that touch on topics within their jurisdiction.
Typically, the members of those committees are drawn from people that have subject matter expertise in their backgrounds or through their work in Congress.
For example, the Armed Services Committee is charged with writing laws affecting the Department of Defense, the military. That’s why you see a lot of veterans on that committee and representatives that represent military installations and stuff like that.
When a piece of legislation, a bill, is introduced by a member, the parliamentarian will refer that bill to a committee for the legislative jurisdiction that it has. The committee will then amend that bill and work it through the committee process before it’s then referred to the full floor for consideration and a potential vote.
They also have oversight jurisdiction, investigatory jurisdiction as well. But all of the rules of the road and what each committee can and can’t do is laid out in the House and Senate rules.
Allen: Is there often quite a lot of back and forth between members in this process?
Brosnan: Oftentimes, you will see members introduce bills that get referred to committees that they serve on because they will have a much more leading role in formulating the policy as it goes through the committee process.
Now, it happens all the time, too, that people will write bills that get referred to other committees, and then the staff will have to work with the committee staff of that committee to advocate for the policy or work with the staff to get it passed eventually.
But more often than not, successful pieces of legislation tend to be written by members that are on the committee that is pushing through the legislation.
Allen: How do members get assigned to their committees? Do they have any say when they’re elected to Congress?
Brosnan: Each House and Senate has different rules and each party has different rules. Speaking for the Republicans as a Republican conference, they rank committees as A and B committees, and you’re only allowed to serve in the Senate, I believe, on one A committee.
That’s the really powerful committees, things set for finance, the tax-writing committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Senate health committee, a banking committee, stuff like that.
And then, so, most members will put in for an A committee or a couple of A committees to seek a waiver, and then they’ll also be allowed to serve on lesser committees, B committees, that don’t have the big powerhouse jurisdiction behind it.
So senators will typically serve on anywhere between three and five committees apiece. House members, since there’s more of them, will tend to serve on only one or two, maybe three in the rare instance.
So the committee assignments are doled out at the beginning of every Congress. The leaders of each parties will typically determine who sits on what committee. And the makeup of the committees are determined by the size of the majority of whomever controls each chamber.
And so Republicans now holding the majority in the House, so they will have more Republican members on House committees than Democratic members. Democrats control the Senate, so there’ll be more Democrat members on committees than Republican members. But the margins were also determined by the majority.
So last Congress from the Senate was 50/50. There was actually an equal amount of senators on each committee from each party, and so they devised the rules.
Leader [Mitch] McConnell and Leader [Chuck] Schumer came to an agreement on passing legislation for tied votes through the committee process to keep the operations running. But the membership is determined, the numbers for each side are determined by the size of the majority in each chamber.
Allen: Some committees are more powerful than others. Is there one committee that everyone wants to be on? Maybe finance?
Brosnan: I think it depends a lot on each individual senator’s background. Generally speaking, finance is a desirable committee. But for folks with a big legal background, the Judiciary Committee would be a target.
So I think somebody like Sen. [Ted] Cruz, who’s a former Supreme Court clerk and solicitor general of Texas, or Sen. [Josh] Hawley, who’s another former Supreme Court clerk, where they’re in their bailiwick right in there … .
The best legal minds we have in the Senate are going to want to be on the Judiciary Committee because they’re charged with things like confirming judges—including Supreme Court judges—running criminal law, running immigration law. And so you need somebody with a very strong legal background. You don’t need it, but it’s helpful. It’s helpful to have that on a committee like the Judiciary Committee.
If you have someone with a banking background or financial services background, they’d be very well suited on the Banking or the Financial Services Committee. But in the Senate, definitely finance, judiciary, help for the health committee are probably three big target ones.
Allen: Now, committees, of course, hold hearings sometimes on a very frequent basis, sometimes less frequent depending upon the committee. What role do hearings play in the legislative process?
Brosnan: There’s a couple of buckets I’ll put hearings into. The first is to sort of have policy hearings. So they’ll have, we are debating a bill that does A, B, C. Is it good for the country? A question that the legislative branch should be asking.
And what they’ll do is they’ll bring policy experts, including folks from The Heritage Foundation, up to discuss the benefits or the drawbacks of how a particular piece of legislation has been written or other factors to consider in implementing a policy.
The second is more oversight, but it’s related to legislators. They will call up the head of an agency. So the Homeland Security Committee will call up [Homeland Security] Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas to see and assess how the secretary is enforcing immigration laws.
And if he’s not doing a good job, which he obviously isn’t at this point in time, they will hold him accountable and consider whether they need to pass new laws to tighten immigration enforcement or alter the funding that the agency receives, stuff like that.
And then the third bucket I have is sort of investigatory or releasing information.
So all of these committees have oversight and investigatory jurisdiction. Many of them are conducting longer-term investigations into misfeasance or malfeasance in the federal government or misfeasance or malfeasance by a private company. And they’ll hold a hearing to release that information to inform debates or determine whether or not new laws need to be passed.
So the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, for example, did a very big investigation into the Boeing 737 MAX crashes.
So they got millions of documents from Boeing, called the CEO up to testify, and revealed the results of their investigation, questioned the CEO of the company about that, and then assessed whether or not legislation was needed to fix the problems they found there.
Allen: How much do you think hearings move the ball forward, whether it’s on a piece of legislation or it’s on an investigation versus how much is that ball moving forward happening behind closed doors?
Brosnan: On the investigatory front, a lot of it is a staff-driven endeavor. I personally don’t think that the show trial hearings move the ball well, unless you do the legwork on the backend to prove your case and present it.
Bringing up witnesses and questioning them before you have documents, for example, does not lead to a good hearing because the witness can just evade and then your members just look foolish up there.
And so the way I like to structure my investigations when I was on the Hill is to do a ton of legwork behind the scenes, request my documents, send my subpoenas—sometimes publicly, sometimes quietly—conduct my interviews with witnesses and lay the traps, potential perjury traps, or make the case behind the scenes, write the report, and then release the report with the hearing and make the case through the hearing with the witness.
And you could have a friendly witness that corroborates what you find in your investigation, or you could have a hostile witness who may disagree, but at least you’ll have the legwork done to back up your point.
On shorter-term oversight hearings, if there’s an emergency like border security that you need to get the witness in the chair immediately, that might move the ball because if there’s a crisis happening, then certainly speed is very important.
But then again, there’s also just legislative and policy hearings as well that the experts come up and those are fruitful because if the committee is seeking or exploring bipartisan legislation to fix something, then bringing the experts in and discussing the benefits and drawbacks of the policy certainly has its benefits and can and does move the ball.
Allen: What is something that you wish more people understood about how Congress really works that you think most people just aren’t aware of?
Brosnan: I think that the staff does a ton of work behind the scenes that the general public doesn’t necessarily know about.
Allen: It’s not all done by the member.
Brosnan: It’s not all done by the member. A ton of it’s done by the staff.
So if you’re holding a hearing, for example, and you’re in the majority and you’re the lead staffer on it, you may have three witnesses that testify. But you have to, at least the way I did it was I would vet anywhere between five and 10 witnesses and hear their story, talk through what they want to say, and then present options to the chairman and say, “Hey, here’s the 10 people we talked to. I think these three would be good, but here’s what other … people would say. It’s up to you who you want to call.”
But that requires hours upon hours upon hours of legwork behind the scenes to get to the point to where it’s ready to go on TV.
And so it’s the best job I’ve ever had on the Hill. I love it. I love this, but it’s a lot of hours. Your families make a lot of sacrifices in your service to the country here, and you’re nameless and faceless and underappreciated behind the scenes, but that’s what we sign up for. And so there’s a lot of sausage-making to get to the point of what the public sees on C-SPAN, is probably what I would say.
Allen: Well, Kyle, thank you so much for your time today.
Brosnan: Thank you very much for having me.
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