Washington Primer: How to Stage-Manage a Congressional Hearing

By David North, February 12, 2013

Wednesday's Senate hearing on immigration policy is a perfect example of how to stage-manage a congressional hearing to secure the maximum advantage for the policies favored by the committee's majority.

The hearing will be before the Senate's full Judiciary Committee and the list of prospective witnesses alone promises it to be a media victory for those advocating a massive amnesty of illegal aliens.

As a sometime witness myself at such hearings, and as a frequent observer of others, let me tick off the ways that a talented committee chair can rig a hearing:

  1. Make sure your side is represented by the highest ranking witnesses and/or those who are the most prominent, or both;

  2. See to it that your side has more witnesses than the other side; and

  3. Adjust the timing to give your witnesses the most attention.

Let's look at these variables while reviewing the arrangements announced by the Committee for Wednesday's hearing.

Rank. The first witness, alone in the first panel, will be DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano; she is by far the ranking witness. She is also deeply experienced and skillful, if totally wrong in most of her judgments.

On the second panel the lead-off witness will be a prominent illegal alien (perhaps a first as a congressional witness), Jose Antonio Vargas, a self-proclaimed multiple-violator of our immigration laws, and an articulate journalist and amnesty advocate. Also supporting more migration will be multi-billionaire Steve Case (the founder of AOL), a newcomer to this issue, and Janet Murguia, the President of the National Council of LaRaza.

The two doubters will be the Center's own Director of Policy Studies, Jessica Vaughan, and a union official for DHS investigators, Chris Crane. While Vaughan is quite capable of taking on all comers in any debate, neither she nor Crane has the Cabinet rank of the Secretary, nor the notoriety of Vargas, nor the fabulous wealth of Case.

In short, in terms of rank and prominence, the cards are totally stacked against the restrictionists.

Numbers. You might think that with a group of six witnesses there would be three witnesses on each side; not so, there are four on one side, and only two on the other.

Timing. As noted, the Secretary will be first, and the most notorious of the more-migration witnesses will lead off the second panel, so the timing is loaded for the pro-amnesty side of the issue.

Most of the times I testified I was on the expert's panel that followed the government's witness or witnesses on the first panel. My experience often was that once the ranking government person had ended his or her appearance, that person, that person's entourage, most of the press, and most of the audience would leave the room. Often the government does not even leave behind anyone but a low-level staffer to hear what the other witnesses have to say.

So in terms of timing, as well as rank and numbers, the dice will be loaded for the administration on Wednesday.

That much is clear, but what will be interesting will be the reaction of the GOP senators to Mr. Vargas. Will they boycott the hearing because of his presence? Probably not a good idea.

Will they just object to his presence, but listen to him anyway? Will they walk out of the room during his testimony, and then refuse to ask questions of him later? I like that approach.

Or will they listen to him and ask him questions, just as if he had a right to be there?

Another theoretical possibility would be for one or more of the Republican senators to ask that the Capitol police remove him from the room and turn him over to ICE — which would, of course, release him immediately on the grounds of "prosecutorial discretion". The police, if asked to intervene, would probably follow the lead of the Committee chair, and he, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would rule that any such request was out of order.

It may turn out to be an interesting hearing!