Doesn't Kansas have better things to worry about?

So What If a Senator Skipped a Dumb Hearing?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Another round of mindless, counterproductive Congress-bashing? This bipartisan American tradition goes back well before Mark Twain.

Every election cycle has its target, and in 2014 it's the incredibly stupid campaign tactic of hitting incumbents because they skip committee hearings. It's been used against Democrats Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Mark Udall in Colorado; it has also been leveled at Republicans Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and, now, Pat Roberts in Kansas.

Yet we're forgetting that it's often a waste of time for members of a committee to attend most hearings. It can be more efficient to send a staffer and, if necessary, read summaries of what happened.

Granted, politicians are being hoist by their own petard; the reason so many hearings are held at all is to generate positive publicity back home.

The catch here is that not all hearings are useless. Some of them generate information. The process of putting together a witness list and preparing for one can be far more important than the hearing itself. It's useful to get witnesses on the record, whether they're from executive branch departments and agencies or outside interest groups. But it doesn't take full attendance, let alone confrontational questions, to make any of that worthwhile.

The same is true in other ways. Committee markups -- the sessions in which bills are considered, amended and passed -- are the core of legislative activity. Still, what happens in formal sessions is often is less important than the side meetings beforehand where the real bargaining gets done. It's quite common for a senator or representative to fight hard for some constituent interest in the weeks before the markup, but once the deal is made to simply give the committee chairman or ranking member his or her proxy for the formal session.

If politicians know they'll be attacked for missing a hearing, they will schedule fewer of them. You can't miss a hearing that never existed! The result will be, once again, reduced legislative capacity for Congress. If legislators can't produce information on their own, they will likely turn to outside interest groups unfiltered by open testimony, or simply leave the heavy lifting to the White House or the bureaucracy. This is something that neither liberals or conservatives should like.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net