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First Person

How it really feels to be a Congressional witness

Outside the cameras' glare, a Senate hearing isn't always this tense

By Glenn McDonald

If there’s one word to describe the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, it might be “vicious.” The hearings have featured relentless objections, bitter exchanges, and protesters arrested and hauled off before the cameras. The Senate Intelligence Committee hearings with leaders of Facebook and Twitter were equally tense, filled with senators grandstanding and tech leaders reciting meticulously worded defenses, crafted to the syllable by battle-hardened PR professionals.

Under the glare of wall-to-wall television coverage, a Congressional hearing can look like the worst example of partisan theater — and a terrifying experience for the witness on the hot seat.

But on a day-to-day basis, hearings are rarely the circus they seem on TV, says attorney and Capitol Hill veteran Alan Stone. Mostly free of the media glare — and, by extension, political posturing — they offer a glimpse at the actual business of Congress.

“Most of the work of the House and the Senate is to authorize and appropriate funds around public policy initiatives,” Stone says. “And to do that, lawmakers are constantly holding hearings.”

“I would help them to just tell their story, speak in their own voice, and not freak out.”

Alan Stone

Stone, a senior consultant for Northeastern University and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, spent the better part of two decades as a staff attorney on Capitol Hill, crafting legislation that shaped the foster care and family leave systems and created the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, popularly known as WIC.

A key part of his job was setting up committee hearings on proposed legislation and bringing in relevant witnesses: scientists, academics, representatives from various business interests, and the occasional regular citizen whose life may be affected by the proposed legislation.

“I would often be giving regular people assurances that their testimony will be important to the formulation of national legislation,” he says. “I would help them to just tell their story, speak in their own voice, and not freak out.”

What helped ease the tension, particularly in subcommittee hearings, was the absence, not only of cameras, but often of lawmakers.

“In the day-to-day hearings, you don’t have full attendance,” Stone says. “You have very partial attendance. You often have no attendance except for the chair of that particular subcommittee.”

The hearing rooms themselves can range from grand to nearly utilitarian, says Matt Dennis, a former Capitol Hill staffer who is now senior vice president at consulting firm CRD Associates. “On the House side it’s not quite as grand and imposing as on the Senate side,” he says with a chuckle. “The Senate people are very impressed with themselves.”

The typical witness faces only one remote camera, used for recording and online streaming, Dennis says. Committee staff are also available to help, making the hot seat feel less heated.

“We’ll talk to the witness about what we’re hoping they can provide, what we’re hoping they can contribute to the process,” Dennis says.

Those contributions can be meaningful, says Stone, who says setting up an effective hearing “is kind of an art form. Senators and Congress people have limited time, a lot of people competing for their attention. You want them, when they’re sitting there, to get a full understanding of the topic. Good witnesses, if they have something important to say, help that happen.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Image of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg preparing to testify before a Senate committee in April 2018 by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

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