Article 15:

(Box) Giving Testimony at U.S. Congressional Hearings

By Deborah M. Brosnan, Sustainable Ecosystems Institute

U.S. Congressional hearings provide conservation scientists a unique format for contributing to environmental debates and decisions. A hearing is a meeting or session of a Senate, House, Joint, or Special Committee of Congress, usually open to the public, to obtain information and opinions on proposed legislation, conduct an investigation, or evaluate and oversee the activities of a government department, or the implementation of a federal law. In addition, hearings may also be purely exploratory in nature, providing testimony and data about topics of current interest. Congressional hearings are generally published two months to two years after they are held. Scientists in the U.S. are likely to be familiar with Congressional hearings as they are frequently televised when they focus on issues of major national importance or controversy. Hearings are important to members of Congress; indeed there is strong belief both within and outside congress that holding public hearings is one of the more important activities that Congress does (Table A). Each year Congress holds numerous hearings on environmental laws and policies. For example, there have been recent hearings on containing the threat of wildland fire to the environment and communities; reauthorization of the marine mammal protection act; role of peer review, and many others. A number of witnesses are invited to speak at congressional hearings and each one is has about five minutes to present information. It is important that you are to the point when giving testimony, and well prepared for the hearing. Presentations are followed by questions and afterward you will have opportunities to follow up in writing.

Table A Seventeen Cardinal Rules for Working with Congress

  1. Convey that you understand what Congress does.
  2. Demonstrate your grasp of the fundamentals of the congressional decision-making system.
  3. Don’t seek support of science as an entitlement.
  4. Don’t convey negative attitudes about politics and politicians.
  5. Perform good intelligence-gathering in advance.
  6. Always use a systematic checklist.
  7. Do your homework on the issue or problem.
  8. Timing is vital.
  9. Understand congressional limitations.
  10. Make it easy for those in Congress to help you.
  11. Keep the “bottom line” in mind.
  12. Use time—yours and theirs—effectively.
  13. Remember that members and staff are mostly generalists.
  14. Don’t patronize either members or staff.
  15. Don’t underestimate the role of staff in Congress.
  16. Consider and offer appropriate follow-up.
  17. Remember that the great majority of members and staff are intelligent, hardworking and dedicated to public service.
(Source: Wells 1996.)

The National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and the Office of Government Affairs provide some general guidelines for preparing and delivering Congressional testimony, which I summarize here in the three primary steps: preparing testimony, production, presentation, delivery of testimony, and post-hearing follow-up.

Preparing testimony: You must fully understand the purpose of the hearings. Respond to the needs of the committee and its invitation. Consultation with the committee staff will often help you understand the full context. Sometimes committee staff can tell you what questions their bosses (senators and congressmen/women) are likely to ask. These staffers often draft these questions. Inquire about other witnesses. It is often helpful to try to learn in advance who else will be testifying and what their key points will be. Hearings are often deliberately set up so that opposing points of view are heard.

Check in advance on the desired format of the statements. Some committees require single-spaced testimony of no more than five pages; others require double-spaced testimony of 10 pages. Often the executive summary of a major report can be paraphrased and summarized as a basis for the testimony. Place your summary up front and highlight your key points. A staff member said, “We like statements that convey facts, contain original analysis, and clearly state a position” (Wells 1996).

Be sure to deliver points that have policy relevance. Keep the language as non-technical and simple as possible. Where personal opinions are given, these should be carefully delineated: “My personal opinion is... Again, that is my personal opinion.” If you are speaking on behalf of an organization, then the executive director or someone else in the organization may need to review testimony before it goes to Capitol Hill.

Begin your testimony with a short paragraph of introduction: “Good morning, Mr./Madam Chairman and members of the Committee. My name is _______. I am professor, research scientist etc. with _______.”

Production, presentation and delivery of testimony: All committees have instructions that vary. Congressional committees often ask for copies of the testimony 48 hours in advance of the hearings. Unless you are asked at the last minute, bringing your statement with you on the day of the hearing is not acceptable. When appropriate, copies of the Executive Summary or of the full report should be offered in advance to the hearing committee’s staff contact.

Be especially brief in your oral testimony. You will be given a certain amount of time—usually about 5 minutes—to summarize your statement. It usually takes 2–2.5 minutes to read one double-spaced page. This means a maximum of 4–5 pages for your summary. Answer all questions briefly and fully.

Post-hearing follow up: In many congressional hearings, it is customary for members and staff to submit questions in writing to a witness for later answers. Respond promptly to such questions submitted for the record. You can also take this opportunity to offer additional comments on questions posed to you earlier in the hearing itself.

After the hearing, you will be sent an excerpt of the transcript of the hearing record. This will contain your oral statement and hearing Q&A responses. Although you will not be permitted to rewrite your testimony, you will be allowed to correct any errors in the transcript.

Finally, always follow up with the committee staff contact. Thank the staffer for their help and guidance during this process, and offer your assistance to them in the future. Members of Congress rely heavily on their staff. Be aware that the staffer serves as a liaison to the member and often briefs the member on science and policy issues. Relationships with these staff people are very important to cultivate.

Literature Cited

Wells, W. G., Jr. 1996. Working with Congress: A practical guide for scientists and engineers. Second Edition. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C.