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Congress Plays the Field

Sometimes Congress can be a lot like kindergarten. There are recesses, though they lack jungle gyms and hopscotch, and there are field trips, though not to the zoo or the local science museum.

Actually, members of Congress don't call them field trips, but rather "field hearings," and they are a staple of nearly every House and Senate recess. While committees meet in the Capitol and its environs most of the year, many panels schedule hearings all over the country during official breaks.

During the current two-week recess, more than a dozen field hearings have been held or scheduled outside of Washington, D.C. A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee met Wednesday in Boston to study the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The House Small Business Committee got together Tuesday in LaGrange, Ga., for a hearing on the impact of the drought in the Peach State. And the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee journeyed to scenic Honolulu last week for a session on the impact of climate change on island communities.

Field hearings give members of Congress a chance to visit different locales and strut their stuff before their own constituents. The Boston hearing on Guantanamo Bay, for example, was chaired by local Rep. William Delahunt (D). The Senate Commerce panel is chaired by Hawaii's own Sen. Daniel Inouye (D). The Georgia drought hearing was a showcase for two lawmakers from that state, Lynn Westmoreland (R) and Hank Johnson (D), and they got some nice local press coverage for their efforts.

North Dakota has been a particular hotbed of congressional activity this recess, thanks to Sens. Byron Dorgan (D) and Kent Conrad (D). On Wednesday, a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee chaired by Dorgan had a hearing in Bismarck, on "large-scale carbon capture and storage technologies," while the Senate Budget Committee, helmed by Conrad, was over in Fargo for a session on funding first responders. The Budget panel has two more hearings slated in the state this week -- one in Minot on infrastructure spending and another in Bismarck on veterans funding. In Devils Lake, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee chaired by Dorgan gathered Tuesday for a hearing on "the rising water level of the Devils Lake basin."

Beyond studying local issues and generating good press clips, field hearings also give members of Congress the opportunity to combat the perception that they might not be working very hard. After all, official congressional calendars don't even use the word "recess," with its leisurely connotations. These breaks are officially called "district work periods," and they are not designed to be paid vacations. Just ask the two Senators from North Dakota, if you can catch them between hearings.

By Ben Pershing  |  March 27, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Hearing Watch  
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Posted by: votenic | March 27, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

How many Congressmen or Senators typically attend field hearings? How much of the work in assembling these hearings, and following up afterward is done by legislators and how much by staff?

During my own time on the Hill the answers to these questions were, respectively, "one or two per hearing" and "about 95% by staff." I doubt this has changed very much. There are exceptions, but most of these field hearings are exactly what they look like: government-financed publicity events for local legislators, good for some media coverage and otherwise forgotten within days.

Posted by: Zathras | March 27, 2008 1:28 PM | Report abuse

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