Congress has the authority to independently investigate violations of the law, ethical transgressions, corrupt practices, neglected agency missions, policy failures, and other problems that occur within the government. An independent power to investigate is essential to Congress’s role as a co-equal branch of government under the Constitution. Investigations of agencies and members of the administration also are critical to Congress’ legislative function, as Congress seeks the most accurate information to inform its deliberations. In our study, Agency Conduct hearings are distinguished from Private Sector Oversight hearings by the target of the investigation. We consider both categories to be “investigative oversight.” Agency Conduct hearings are distinguished from Policy hearings largely by whether an assumption of ethical wrongdoing or agency failure exists. Hearings are not classified as Agency Conduct hearings merely because they are contentious. If a committee holds a hearing with the purpose of challenging the content or direction of policy, it is likely to be categorized as a Policy hearing, rather than as an Agency Conduct hearing.
Although it is the Executive Branch’s responsibility to prosecute law breaking, Congress’ legislative responsibilities include the authority to investigate private sector corruption, negligence, misinformation, and other forms of malfeasance or failures. Congressional investigations of the private sector shine a light on specific problems within the American economy and institutions and can reveal holes in existing laws or regulations. Consequently, these hearings can contribute to policy formation and efforts to enact legislative reforms. Some examples of Private Sector Oversight hearings include those related to the financial dealings of the Enron Corporation, the lack of transparency in the tobacco industry, and steroid use in professional sports.
Committees hold many hearings to review executive branch policy making, regulatory activity, and implementation of laws. Typically such hearings feature at least one executive branch witness who can be questioned. These hearings may also feature subsequent panels of private witnesses or experts to provide broader perspective. On many committees, Policy hearings are the most common category. These hearings may have a contentious or cooperative tone between members of the committee and Executive Branch witnesses.
Committees hold hearings related to pending legislation and legislation under development. These Legislative hearings are closely related to Policy hearings in that they both involve substantive oversight of government activities and the laws and regulations under which these activities occur. Legislative hearings may feature government witnesses, private sector witnesses, or both. In our study, the determining factor of whether a hearing qualifies as a Legislative hearing is whether it directly relates to legislation, either already proposed or still on the drawing board. Legislative hearings include hearings on the budget or appropriations. In our study, this category also includes hearings on treaties, even though treaties are not technically legislation.
The Constitution gives the Senate responsibility for approving the nominees of the President to high government offices, including cabinet officials, ambassadors, judges, and top military leaders. Nominations made by the President are forwarded to the Senate committee of jurisdiction. Nomination hearings may feature a single nominee or a group of nominees who discuss their qualifications and answer questions from committee members. Although nomination hearings appear to be distant from Congress’ oversight function, most of them include some discussion of administration policy. Nomination hearings also frequently put the nominees on record regarding how they intend to conduct their missions. Such hearing records serve as benchmarks that are useful to subsequent oversight hearings.
Committees hold many hearings that are intended to assess local, national, or international conditions or dynamics. We classify such hearings as Fact Finding hearings. Typically, Fact Finding hearings feature one or more panels of witnesses who are selected for their expertise or their representation of a particular group. With few exceptions, if a hearing includes an Executive Branch witness, we classify it as a Policy or Legislative hearing, not a Fact Finding hearing.
Some committees hold a small number of hearings outside the Capitol complex. The vast majority of such Field hearings occur in the home state or home district of the chair of the committee or subcommittee. Such hearings often are used as a means of connecting with constituents on a problem of local importance or illustrating a national problem through a case study based on local conditions. Frequently, the witnesses appearing at Field hearings are officials and individuals from the state or district where the hearing is held.
Committees with jurisdictions related to national security hold closed hearings when the session includes content that cannot be discussed in public because it is classified. The content of these hearings is usually similar to Policy Hearings and they frequently include government witnesses. Most hearings of the House and Senate Intelligence committees fall into the closed category. House and Senate committees dealing with foreign affairs, homeland security, and the armed services will hold a smaller number of these hearings each year.