Hearings Oversight in a Time of Covid

Katina Slavkova | July 1, 2020

At the end of season one of the popular HBO comedy series Veep, a panicked staffer from the Vice President’s office hurriedly solicits advice from a lawyer during a fundraising event. The staffer dreads being asked to testify before Congress because of his role in a series of hilariously incompetent crises.

He urgently queries the lawyer: “What happens if I get called in before a congressional committee?” The lawyer’s response is direct but also extremely practical: “Okay, you need three versions of your statement- a written, an oral, and a shorter oral in case of a time limit.”

Art can imitate life.  While some aspects of congressional hearings are unchanged, Congress is picking up the pace amid historic rules changes, with a particular but not exclusive focus on the pandemic.

Hearings: whats the same

While the current health emergency has prompted a panoply of dramatic changes for congressional operations, the curt advice from the show’s lawyer still rings true for executive branch officials trying to navigate the congressional hearings process amidst an unprecedented public health crisis. At a minimum, regardless of how the pandemic has temporarily disrupted the workings of Congress, committee chairs will still expect to receive an opening statement from witnesses during hearing proceedings.

Even experienced, high-level cabinet officials who testify before Congress on a fairly regular basis can attest that hearings can be extremely uncomfortable and intimidating experiences under the best of circumstances. But the ongoing pandemic has only further complicated a process that normally requires a great deal of time and diligent preparation by executive branch personnel.

Oversight: picking up speed

After an abrupt pause to most congressional activity in mid-March, Congress gradually increased its visibility and work pace following a chorus of sustained criticism from outside observers. While committee hearing schedules in April and most of May were practically deserted (save for some informal teleconference briefings or virtual roundtables), by early June impatient committee chairs and their staff were eagerly experimenting with fully remote or hybrid format proceedings.

Most committees in both the House and Senate are now convening fairly frequent congressional hearings in the hopes of reinvigorating oversight of the executive branch, which has languished in the last couple of months. Many committees in both chambers have conducted formal hearings in June, and some have already posted notices for upcoming July proceedings as well.

Executive branch officials should expect a steady uptick in committees’ requests for testimony, especially in July, as Congress will try to cram as much work as possible before the annual August recess. While the pace of scheduled hearings might not match prior years’ intensity and frequency, committees are hungry for information, documents, and generally very eager to hear directly from administration witnesses.

It is also possible that the new virtual format that many committees have embraced may actually accelerate the pace of hearings. As more and more committee chairs become comfortable with the technology and staff continue to improve and smooth out the logistical kinks, it will be inevitably tempting to schedule more hearings. In addition, the availability of remote technology might make it  harder for administration witnesses to delay or postpone testimony. While chairs might still prefer that witnesses appear in person, the fact that there is now a second option available could make it less tenable for witnesses to refuse to testify.

Under normal circumstances the fall calendar would not be a particularly productive time for Congress, particularly during an election year.  Yet, the accumulated work backlog along with the apparent ease of convening virtual hearings could usher in a hearings agenda in September and October that is busier than usual.

A pandemic focus, but not exclusively

If June is any indication, the majority of future committee work will focus quite heavily on pandemic-related oversight. Almost exclusively, hearing topics over the past month touched upon various aspects of the pandemic crisis. However, it is very likely that committees will start focusing on other items that may have fallen by the wayside. And judging by the unrelenting news cycle, national security issues will be ripe for oversight hearings in the coming weeks as well.

Congress is trying hard to make up for lost time. Technology which was embraced somewhat reluctantly at the beginning of this crisis is now steadily facilitating their efforts. In the current environment, congressional hearings oversight seems uniquely positioned to benefit from the availability of virtual and remote proceedings. As the pace of hearings begins to pick up, executive branch officials involved with congressional testimony preparation will do well to get back to basics – have three versions of the opening statement ready: a written, an oral, and a shorter oral just in case of a time limit.  Given everything they’re covering, it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic script coming from Hollywood.

Katina Slavkova is a Fellow and Director of the Certificate Program at the Government Affairs Institute


Categories: 116th Congress, Committees, Congressional Update, Media Center, Revise & Extend, Updates