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How Congress Legislates Today

At their best, congressional committees produce effective legislation through information gathering and bipartisan collaboration. But that ideal is compromised too often.

February 7, 2023

This piece is adapted from the forthcoming book Inside Congressional Committees: Function and Dysfunction in the Legislative Process

The 118th Congress opened with a rocky start. The new rules package adopted as part of the negotiations over electing a speaker highlighted the many procedural issues that hamper the contemporary legislative process. What will it take for Congress to get its work done?  

My new book aims to answer this question, looking under the legislative hood and exploring committees as the concourse leading up to bill passage. The analysis draws on an original data set of 1,364 pieces of witness testimony, representing 456 hearings in eight congressional committees during the 112th through 116th Congresses, as well as over 65 interviews with senators, representatives, staff members, witnesses, and others.  

This book shows that when you zoom out and explore the legislative process as a whole instead of just the vote counts, Congress appears full of working parts. Although it is greatly hampered by procedural, partisan, and other constraints, parts of the committee process still work some of the time.  

When the culture of the committee and the working relationship between majority and minority staff remain collegial or the topics are bipartisan, hearings are more likely to be used as deliberative forums, educational platforms, and spaces for personal connection between members. Senate committees may also have a greater propensity than House committees for deliberation, personal connection, and learning because of structural and cultural differences.  

Educational hearings may be more likely in instances in which there is no imminent legislation, so information and witnesses are more likely to be “new.” As one member of the House Science Committee said, “If you are talking about the far future, you can act in a much more bipartisan way. When you are talking about next year’s budget or tribal issues like climate change, you immediately go into parties.”  

Television cameras promote theatricality and superficiality, whereas informal settings may elicit greater learning and more personal connection. As a result, an external observer might understandably overestimate the number of theatrical hearings. They are the ones reported on, whereas low-profile hearings are, by nature, less likely to garner media attention.  

Committee hearings also still serve as spaces to hear a range of public voices. The witness testimony shared in committee hearings is diverse, analytical, and informative. It draws on the professional expertise, opinions, and personal background of many Americans and is shaped by their experiences and communication styles. Certain types of witnesses may affect committee members in distinct ways. Witnesses untarnished by political labels stemming from their affiliations — like “progressive” or “conservative” — are more likely to inspire open listening and inquisitive questioning on the part of members.  

Exposure to different views in hearings may also lead to the legitimization and collaboration necessary to overcome partisan gridlock. The book does not argue that a Democrat hearing a Republican witness will change their minds, but it does tell stories of how understanding the other side’s arguments and priorities revealed new areas for collaboration. A staffer for a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explained how, as a result of attending a hearing about the existence of a position supporting “women’s issues” within the State Department, her boss was able to see which other members cared about this issue, allowing her to work with them to protect this position. In some instances, this can even lead to legitimization of other viewpoints. 

As the congressman in the introduction to this book related, when you zoom in and take a close look at the stories that shape senators and representatives and their work, a complex tapestry of relationships, informal norms, and hopeful stories of learning and legislating emerges. This does not mean that Congress today is not broken, impotent, and embroiled in conflict — it is. But it is possible to have a more accurate and more nuanced picture, which the interviews and analysis in the book provide.  

With an understanding of what works and what can be improved, Congress can continue to strengthen itself as a proxy for the American people, properly fit to tackle present-day problems. Throughout the book, I make recommendations to bolster the committee system. Bipartisan agenda-setting meetings and active promotion of non-legislative hearings could increase the number of educational and deliberative hearings. Professional advisory boards not beholden to chairs would strengthen the quality of information and information processing in committees, as would hiring professional policy staffers with adequate pay. Along the same lines, the newly minted Office of Diversity and Inclusion could go a long way in creating a more diverse group of committee staffers to create more representative witness panels. More video hearings would yield similar benefits.  

Implementing these and other reforms can ensure that committee hearings make full use of their modern potential.