Just this week, the U.S. Senate got started on committee work, with most panels holding their first hearings. All four of Sen. Dan Sullivan’s committees met Wednesday, colliding in a scheduling pile-up that’s typical in Congress. To get by — and be effective — requires skill in the art of Senate juggling.
Sullivan’s first hearing of the day, at 9:30, was in Senate Armed Services, chaired by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz..
It was on challenges to U.S. national security. Syria, Iran, Islamic State – it covered some tough terrain. Sullivan heard the first witness, but things really heated up when it was Sen. Lindsey Graham’s turn to question the witnesses.
“I am advocating that we defeat this enemy to mankind and that we get the Islamic world engaged,” Graham, R-S.C., said, his voice rising as he argued for the need to help moderate rebels fight the Syrian regime.
By tradition, seniority determines a senator’s place in line to ask questions. By the time it would’ve been Sullivan’s turn, he’d moved on: 10 a.m., Veterans Affairs. It was a business meeting, with a bill on the table, rather than a hearing with witnesses. Sullivan arrived in time to vote in favor of better suicide prevention for vets. Here Sullivan was allowed to make a statement.
“Thank you Mr. Chairman and Sen. Blumenthal. I’d agree with your comments about this being the most important committee in the United States Senate. I’m very honored to be here,” Sullivan began in what turned out to be a 45-second statement.
By then, the Environment and Public Works session was underway. Sullivan was there early, but gone when Chairman Jim Inhofe called on him to speak.
“Sen. Sullivan,” Inhofe called out, before turning to to confer with a staffer. “He was here just a … OK … OK, Sen. Rounds.”
Around then, Sullivan was presiding over the Senate for the first time. This a duty often assigned to freshmen members of the majority party, to help train them in the ways of the Senate. Sullivan’s first turn happened to fall during a busy morning, illustrating one of the limits of the job: Senators enjoy certain powers and privileges, but even they can’t be in two places at the same time.
“Conflicts between hearings happen on a very regular basis,” says Washington lobbyist David C. Russell, a former chief of staff to the late Sen. Ted Stevens. “Also, the Senate’s rules encourage committees to meet in the mornings, so scheduling conflicts tend to stack up in the early hours of the day.”
Worse yet, Mondays and Fridays aren’t usually full work days. Senators are so overbooked mid-week it’s not unusual to have witnesses testifying in a cavernous room with just one senator present. It may look like an empty exercise, but Russell says senators have ways of making it less so.
“It’s not hard to be effective,” he said. “The senators are well briefed in advance of the hearings. There’s a memo that goes out from committee staff to each office.”
Senators often station a staffer at each hearing for the duration. Sometimes a lawmaker magically appears just in time to speak. Russell says some committees let senators speak early if they arrived early, but at some you have to stay to keep your spot in the queue.
“So senators quickly learn which committee follows which rules, and how to best bounce from place to place to try to get as much business in during the morning as they can,” Russell said.
Retired Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton says lawmakers will go to committees for bill markups, but he says hearings with witnesses have become less important.
“They were, many years ago, a search for truth, bringing in different points of view and listening to the experts and trying to develop the options,” Hamilton said. “But today they’re mostly a platform for advocacy.”
Hamilton, now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, says chairmen select witnesses, sometimes celebrity witnesses, to trumpet their own point of view.
“Every chairman tries to attract the cameras and that, too becomes a factor in every decision a member makes” about which hearings to attend, Hamilton said.
When lawmakers are planning their day, he said, they’ll often ask their staff which hearings have a chance of landing them on TV.