How to testify before Congress?
Guest Article By Professor Kevin Solomon
Science drives economic growth and serves society by providing technical solutions to national challenges. But what areas should be prioritized? How should they be fostered? Are there any social, economic, or technical risks to the development of these technologies? How should the risks be managed? As an expert in your field you may be called upon to educate congress and provide testimony that helps shapes government policy. Here I provide my perspective of how one participates in such proceedings.
Getting an invite for a congressional hearing
It all starts with a bill. Government shapes public policy through laws that have their origin as a bill. Initial drafts of bills are prepared by staffers and lobbyists before being discussed in congressional committees with members of congress from both sides of the aisle. To facilitate the discussion, the committee will hold hearings where they invite experts to address points of discussion and educate the committee on the benefits and implications of proposed legislation. But who gets invited as an expert? Frequently, lobbyists may suggest experts to Members of Congress for consultation. Similarly, Members of Congress may be more proactive and reach out to their professional networks, typically from their home state, for experts. Either way, staffers for the committee chairperson and ranking member (read most senior Member of Congress from the opposition on the committee) will then vet this list.
I was invited to Congress through the latter method. The ranking member of the committee represented my district and was an alumnus of a highly-ranked institution in the district (and dare I say the US) where I am a professor. His request filtered through the school’s lobbying office and onwards to the college deans. The Deans, who are familiar with my work, deemed me an appropriate expert for the topic under discussion and nominated me for an invitation. After some informal interviews with staffers from both sides of the aisle evaluating my ability to think on my feet, communicate at an appropriate level for an educated but lay audience, and address the issues under consideration, I had a ‘soft’ invite. I say soft as I needed to be more formally vetted (perhaps for political posts on social media? Background checks?) before a formal invitation was extended. Note that this was 2 weeks before the scheduled hearing.
A week later, I received my formal invitation (via email) with instructions for the hearing. I was required to provide an oral statement of no more than 5 minutes that addressed a handful of questions. I was also invited (read strongly encouraged) to provide written testimony of 5-8 pages that would be added to the public record. Travel expenses would not be covered by the committee and I was expected to provide more than four dozen hard copies to the office of the lead staffer more than 48 h before the scheduled hearing.
Preparing for the hearing
Fortunately for me, my institution and its lobbyists provided a number of resources including travel arrangements that made the preparation a relative ease. I first started with the required oral statement. Five minutes is not a lot of time and with your every word being transcribed with the potential to influence policy, those words must be chosen carefully. It turns out 5 minutes of speech is less than 2 pages or roughly 750 words. Not a whole lot. I prepared my key take home messages in response to the questions in the invitation and had professional writers from my institution, and our lobbying office edit the statement for clarity, and policy implication. This statement provided the outline for the written testimony that expanded on the take home message of the oral statement and provided my biographical details to provide context for my thinking. This testimony was referenced with footnotes and easily filled 8 pages once I had decided on my key points. While this felt stressful at the time, this writing was probably one of the easiest documents I’ve had to write as it was indeed my area of expertise. As scientists, we frequently don’t have a voice in scientific policy but given this platform I realized I had (strong) opinions about these regulations. But I guess that’s why I’m a professor. Always with an opinion. 😊 I also did a practice delivery of my earlier oral statement drafts – this ended poorly and I will say no more about this.
In addition to our statements, we are also required to submit forms for transparency. We must list any possible conflicts of interest, funding from the government, a CV outlining our credentials, and so on. I sent all of these to our lobbyists in DC who then filed the appropriate paperwork with the congressional committee in advance of the hearing and delivered the 50 or so hard copies of my written statement. Approximately 24 h before this deadline (72 business h before the hearing) I received my official invitation in the mail.
Before the hearing, I met an aide from our lobbying office who led me to the room and walked me through the proceedings. Each expert relaxed in a separate ‘green room’ of sorts where we could collect our thoughts and prepare for the session. At the hearing I only had a few moments to meet my fellow expert witnesses and speak with a handful of Members of Congress. We were quickly ushered into the hearing room and seated in a set order (see photo above) – how this was decided is unknown to me. The chairperson opens the hearing in a 5-minute speech where they introduce the experts and outline the goals of the hearing. Other Members of Congress are also invited to speak within a 5-minute window of time – note this recurring time. After this preamble, each expert was called upon in their seating order to deliver their 5-minute oral statement. Each speaker has a timer and a series of colored lights to indicate their time remaining. While it was not strictly enforced, committee members were aware of and visibly annoyed when speakers far exceeded their allotted time. After our speeches, committee members were invited to respond in 5-minute speeches in order of seniority. Surprisingly to me, these responses were not all questions for the experts. Frequently, committee members used a majority of their time to celebrate the contributions of their electoral district to the issue at hand, and sometimes to unrelated issues. Others were well versed in the technical and policy implications of the hearing and had insightful and probing questions for selected experts. The statements and responses from the expert had to fit in this 5-minute window for each committee member. A short 2 h later, the hearing was over. The stenographer stopped taking notes, the live stream ended – did I forget to mention the hearing was recorded (my statement is @29:29 and answers to questions throughout) and streamed live on the internet! – and we were free to go. Members of Congress quickly left for their next meeting while the experts thanked the staffers and prepared to leave. I left to find my phone filled with messages from my colleagues (and mother!) who watched the proceeding live online. It’s great to have such an extensive support network.
About 2 weeks after the hearing I received transcripts of the proceedings to review for accuracy. I was also asked to provide a written statement for an additional question. All of this, your conflicts of interest, your written statements, transcripts of your testimony, and live video of the hearing are preserved for posterity in the congressional record and freely available online. While this was a whirlwind of an experience with short deadlines, the policy implications of this work remain to be seen. It was an honor to participate in the legislative process like this and I would highly encourage everyone to accept the opportunity should they be presented with a similar offer.