Discuss: The Empty Hearing Room
Feb 28, 2014
On Wednesday, actor Seth Rogen testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee about the financial and emotional toll that Alzheimer’s takes on American families. Rogen gave a heartfelt speech that generated a lot of buzz, but he has been critical of the fact that only a handful of Senators were present while he testifying.
Rogen claims the low attendance is “proof” that Senator’s don’t consider Alzheimer’s research and treatment a priority. But as a former staffer, I can tell you–and The Christian Science Monitor backs me up–that the absence of Senators means nothing of the kind.
Senators sit on multiple committees, which often schedule hearings, markups and briefings at the same time. The Alzheimer’s hearing was at 10:00AM on Wednesday (the busiest day on the Hill). At the same time, the Finance Committee held a hearing on boosting retirement savings for low-income workers. The Foreign Relations Committee met about treaties with several foreign countries. Homeland Security held a hearing on Americans who hide assets in foreign banks to avoid paying income taxes. Judiciary met about competition and anti-trust in the wireless telecommunications market.
Further, while Senators skipped Rogen’s testimony, they didn’t skip the hearing entirely. Most of the Senators were there when the hearing started to hear from the primary witness (the Director of NIH) and make remarks, then left to tend to other commitments.
In addition to hearings, Senators have meetings with constituents who come to D.C. to talk about everything from school lunches to veterans’ benefits. Most of these folks spend their own money to travel large distances to meet with their officials for a few minutes in a cramped office or a hallway.
And even if a Senator leaves the room, if one of her staffers is there, she’s there. As The Christian Science Monitor stated, “even if [Rogen] doesn’t recognize them. [Staffers] draw up the bills, set the budget figures, and provide their bosses with the short memos that nudge them how to vote.” Staffers are their boss’s eyes and ears when their schedule demands they be in four places at once, which it always does.
It’s hard to look at the photo of a near-empty dais and not jump to the conclusion that your elected officials are falling down on the job. The public is happy to believe Rogen’s accusations because that perspective matches our already low opinion of the work that Congress does (or doesn’t do). But what would you rather your Senator be doing: listening to an actor testify about his personal experiences with a terrible disease or tending to other meetings and hearing on her calendar?
There aren’t enough hours in the day to sit through every hearing, speech, meeting and briefing that elected officials are asked to participate in. They have to multi-task, double- and triple-book their calendars and use staff to fill the gaps. So while Alzheimer’s research is a priority, Rogen’s testimony was not. His presence was meant to raise the profile of the issue (which it did), not teach subject matter experts about federal policy.
P.S. I don’t write many Discussion posts anymore, but after seeing this story on every news broadcast last night, I wanted to say something. Hopefully, it helps explain things for the people outside the Beltway better than a 30-second spot on the news meant to generate controversy.