Understanding Congress: What’s the Big Deal About a Hearing?

Post Date: October 28, 2013

There are four interesting hearings coming up in the next two weeks in the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.  You can view them all on our calendar of events and watch many of them online, right at your desk.  The hearings are:

What’s the big deal about a hearing?, you may be wondering. Here’s what you need to know about hearings and why they matter:

  • Who?:  Hearings are conducted by the committees, subcommittees, and special task forces of Congress.  When it comes to criminal sentencing, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees (and their subcommittees and task forces) is where the consideration of sentencing reform begins.  Hearings can be conducted by
    • The full committee, which is, well, full — it includes all the members of a particular committee and covers any topic that falls within that subject area (e.g., anything having to do with courts, judges, crime, or sentencing goes to the Judiciary Committee);
    • A subcommittee, which includes only some of the members of the full committee and covers only a few topics (e.g., the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security only discusses those subjects); or
    • A task force, which usually works for a short period of time, has few members, and deals with an even narrower set of issues — for example, the House Over-Criminalization Task Force has 10 members, will work for six months, and is focusing on whether we have too many federal criminal laws and regulations.
  • What?:  Hearings are when a committee (or subcommittee or task force) of Congress gathers to hear different points of view — called “testimony” — from a group of witnesses who contribute their thoughts on a bill or topic Congress is considering.  The hearing could be short, with just one or a few witnesses, or it could be quite lengthy, with many panels of witnesses testifying. Witnesses are usually experts in the field, government employees, or people impacted by a law, but they can also be other members of Congress or state or local officials. The members of Congress are allowed to ask the witnesses questions, and witnesses and others are allowed to submit written information (e.g., factsheets, reports, data) for the committee to consider.
  • When?:  The chairperson of the committee, subcommittee, or task force chooses the topics of hearings and when they will be held. (The current chair of the House Judiciary Committee is Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), and the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee is Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).) Sometimes, a subcommittee will have a hearing first, followed by a hearing by the full committee later on; sometimes, though, the subcommittee level is skipped, and the topic or bill gets its first consideration in a full committee hearing. 
  • Where?:  Hearings take place at the U.S. Capitol’s House and Senate office buildings. They are almost always open to the public, so anyone can attend and listen. Hearings can also often be watched on the committee’s websites.
  • Why?:  Hearings are one of the ways Congress collects information, data, expert feedback, and public input about bills and policies it is debating. Hearings also allow Congress to do “oversight” — in other words, keep tabs on how other agencies or branches of government are doing their jobs. Committees do not vote on or pass bills in hearings — hearings are just for collecting information.

Having a committee hearing on a bill or topic (e.g., mandatory minimum sentencing reform) is the first step toward getting Congress to pass a law.  Hearings can also be held before a bill is even written or introduced, laying the groundwork for introducing a bill later on.  

So, why do hearings matter?  Hearings are a great way to hear what members of Congress think, what concerns them, and why they want (or don’t want) to change current law.  The four hearings happening in the next two weeks cover many different issues — self defense, gun crimes, judges and courts, federal crimes for business activities, and rehabilitating federal prisoners.  No bills will be passed at these hearings, but the hearings could lay the groundwork for moving sentencing reform bills forward in the future.  And, at a minimum, the hearings may tell us more about what members of Congress think about mandatory minimums, judicial discretion, gun crimes, and the role of the courts in sentencing.

I’ll be keeping an eye on all of these hearings over the next two weeks. If one interests you, tune in!

To learn more about how a bill becomes a law, click here.  

Molly Gill

Government Affairs Counsel, FAMM

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