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Discuss: The Empty Hearing Room

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.

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    29 comments

  1. Risa says:

    Thanks for this insider’s perspective. Just because you write primarily about fashion and beauty doesn’t mean you’re limited to covering those topics. You make a lot of fantastic points here.

    February 28, 2014/Reply
    • Brittany says:

      Agreed! I like her fashion advice and her insight into government and politics, in which I don’t work.

      February 28, 2014/Reply
  2. Chelsea says:

    Let’s discuss the value of these celebrity non-experts – silly Piper Kerman testified this week as well.

    February 28, 2014/Reply
    • Brittany says:

      Sometimes I agree with you. In Rogen’s case, though, I disagree. He was speaking from his personal experience in helping to pay for his mother in law’s care. He also astutely made the point that most people aren’t as fortunate as he and his in laws are to have the money to provide the care.

      February 28, 2014/Reply
      • Belle says:

        I’m not saying he didn’t provide a valuable contribution, he did. He really raised the issue’s profile in the public’s mind which is important for securing more funding. But he didn’t tell the committee members anything they don’t hear from Alz advocates and their own constituents every day. I’d rather have my Senator questioning a witness about how we’re going to stop one-percenters from cheating Uncle Sam or meeting with school kids from home than listening to testimony they can watch online later.

        February 28, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Hey, at least Rogen took it seriously. I was really disappointed when Colbert decided to submit real, factual testimony and then do his shtick instead of testifying about immigrant labor. He thought he was being funny, but it was insulting. He could have done a lot more for the cause by making some great jokes and giving the facts. The impact of the satire wasn’t very helpful to the cause.

      February 28, 2014/Reply
      • e says:

        I disagree. His spoken testimony was tongue in cheek but it’s not accurate to say he didn’t testify about immigrant labor. He did. And I think the jokes are what pulled average non-Hill people (and news outlets) in, and why it was covered so widely. I agree with your point that staff go to hear the testimony and that is a good use of their valuable time, but to pretend that providing testimony isn’t in any way theater is a bit disingenuous.

        February 28, 2014/Reply
        • Belle says:

          True. Testimony is, in a way, theatre.

          February 28, 2014/Reply
      • Chelsea says:

        Agree, Belle – Colbert insulted the staffers who worked so hard on the immigration issue, and demeaned the Senate itself.

        February 28, 2014/Reply
  3. Maggie says:

    I have argued this exact same point to friends outside the beltway this week. Happy that I’m getting back up! It’s my job to be aware of everything that happens for the issues I cover. I’m just quite literally less visible on cspan.

    February 28, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      It’s tough to explain to people that most elected officials are generalists. They know a something about every issue, but only focus on a handful. Staffers are forced by necessity to know the ins and outs of all of their issues. When it comes time to write policy on Alzheimer’s research and funding, it’s the staffers that will write up the memos and suggest options, answer their boss’s questions and get the ball rolling when their boss decides what to do. This is why it drives staffers crazy when visitors tell staff that they don’t want to meet with them because they deserve to meet with the boss. Most of them don’t realize that, in many cases, they’re better off meeting with the staff. It may not be better for their ego or their Mr. Smith Goes to Washington dreams, but they’ll still get what they need.

      February 28, 2014/Reply
  4. Melissa says:

    Well said!

    February 28, 2014/Reply
  5. E says:

    A-FREAKING-MEN.

    February 28, 2014/Reply
  6. Mel says:

    I love these posts. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

    February 28, 2014/Reply
  7. Lauren says:

    I’m clearly biased in my opinion, so let me say this. While your point is well taken, the sad fact is Rogen isn’t that off base. Congress doesn’t take Alzheimer’s seriously enough and to that you only need to look at the resources allocated to the disease in comparison to its impact on individuals and federal programs. So while I care less about the empty room for him, I care deeply about the fact that this health crisis does not receive nearly enough attention from our elected officials at all levels.

    February 28, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      There are many worthwhile issues and causes that should receive more attention. Alzheimer’s just got a marquee hearing in the Senate. That’s a great indicator that the Senate (which scheduled the hearing) and NIH (which supported it) are looking to boost attention to this issue. So take heart that the profile of this issue is clearly on the rise.

      February 28, 2014/Reply
  8. Beth says:

    THANK YOU. Seth Rogen, give Mark Kirk a break.

    February 28, 2014/Reply
  9. Katy from Oregon says:

    These discussion posts are my favorite!

    February 28, 2014/Reply
  10. Melinda says:

    This helped me understand everything a little better. Thanks for clarifying what is so misunderstood!

    February 28, 2014/Reply
  11. Lindsay says:

    Totally agree. I had two meetings with staffers in hallways this week, but for the right person, I’d talk to them instead of an over-extended member.

    February 28, 2014/Reply
  12. Haleigh says:

    Great post. I don’t think the public, or Hollywood, understands just how many issues we are lobbied on every.single.day. Just this week, I met with a group asking for more funding for research on stomach cancer, a man from my boss’s district whose daughter was born with a pancreatic disease, a group of Union civil workers at a military base in our district, as well as corporate lobbyists coming to praise/condone the new tax reform principles just released. And that was just MY meetings. Three others in our office took even more meetings, and all the groups coming in for these meetings hope for (and often expect) a brief moment of the Congressman’s time. So for anyone to say that these members are lazy or don’t care about particular issues is foolish and quite frankly an ignorant mistruth. When my boss steps out of a committee hearing, he does it because his calendar is double, triple, quadruple booked, and he cares so much about the issues, he can’t devote 2 hours to a hearing on one subject on any given day. They are stretched thin, as is the staff.

    February 28, 2014/Reply
  13. Cynthia W says:

    I actually took it as a good sign – Rogan didn’t receive any special treatment for being a celebrity (other than being allowed to testify in the first place). It would have been irritating if all the Senators would have sat there to be on tv while he testified instead of treating him like any other non-expert witness.

    February 28, 2014/Reply
  14. Addison says:

    While interning at a lobbying firm, identifying and then attending any hearings on topics that would concern out clients was one of my main responsibilities. So we were only focusing on a few of the committees, but most weeks there was still at least one day where there were 3 or more relevant hearings all at the same time. I had to attend and the most urgent ones and watch the others later. Constituents often complain about functions of Congress that they don’t understand

    February 28, 2014/Reply
  15. A says:

    As an LA who staffs my boss for their Committee work, I couldn’t agree more. So much prep goes into those hearings, and sometimes our bosses have to be in a hundred places at once. As long as I am there, she is “listening.” And I agree, I would rather have her meet with a group that has flown from home to see her than to have her sit in on a hearing that I can easily take notes at on her behalf. Thanks!

    February 28, 2014/Reply
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  17. Nancy says:

    Can you bring back “Discuss” posts? They were my favorite!
    This post right here proves it. This is not just a blog about fashion. It is much, much more.

    March 2, 2014/Reply
  18. ac says:

    Whose Seth Rogan? Had to google him. Most Senators wouldn’t know him from their staff members. I mean look at the Senate Approps committee, https://www.appropriations.senate.gov/about-members.cfm They should have got someone of more interest to their demographic. Although having worked for an association that tried to get high profile artists to do our hearing, it is difficult task.

    But you are spot on. The public is always shocked if they see the empty House when a Member is speaking. Members schedules are spread very thin.

    The Alzheimer’s association got a big shout out in the House of Cards!

    March 2, 2014/Reply
  19. Cally says:

    THANK YOU! As a Senate staffer, I listen to our bosses take a beating over anything and everything–they don’t deserve this media attack. Seth Rogen spoke out of ignorance of their schedule demands.

    March 3, 2014/Reply
  20. Sara says:

    I think part of the reason Rogan was so disappointed is that the Senators were all eager to meet him and take pictures with him (and even tweet those pictures) but then didn’t actually stay to listen to what he said. Which, even given their busy schedules, would give someone reason to be taken aback. Politicians are given a lot of guff for silly things, but I don’t think Rogan was out of line in this one. Also, all the kerfuffle called even more attention to the fact that he was testifying about Alzheimer’s, so it was pretty effective in drawing even more media attention to the cause beyond even what his initial appearance did.

    March 4, 2014/Reply