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IDEAS

Making Congress smarter

Your senators and representatives are supposed to learn a lot from expert testimony. But that process is broken.

The Capitol, on the night of a partial lunar eclipse in 2019.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

As members of Congress for a combined nearly 30 years, the two of us, a psychologist from the Pacific Northwest and a lawyer and journalist from Oklahoma, weighed, debated, and voted hundreds of times on energy policy, agriculture subsidies, transportation funding, approval of submarines and jet fighters, foreign assistance programs, tax policies, and the many other issues that come before the federal legislature, almost all of them outside our areas of expertise and experience. Like most members of Congress, we were generalists, well-versed in a few of the things we voted on, but otherwise dependent on the knowledge and advice of others. We staffed our offices with the best researchers we could find, but with so many issues and so few staff members, we were in constant need of more expert input. It generally came from specialized congressional committees and the experts they summoned.

But that system isn’t good enough. The world is changing rapidly, especially in areas of science and technology that are far outside the expertise of most members of Congress. That means your senators and representatives and their staffs can’t possibly learn enough to make informed decisions from occasional hearings in which three or four witnesses are each given a short amount of time to speak.

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We aren’t the only ones who believe that Congress’s methods need updating. Research from Lauren Bell and John D. Rackey shows that the number of witnesses appearing before Congress has declined by nearly 80 percent since the 1970s. They argue that witnesses have become more reluctant to testify because legislators have come to occupy more of the spotlight during hearings. The result: Hearings have become less effective lawmaking tools. And it’s not just hearings that have atrophied: The agencies that research issues and report to lawmakers have contracted their staff size by nearly 40 percent between 1980 and 2015, even as the number, complexity, and pace of change of issues they must address have all increased. This is why the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress recently recommended the creation of a “bipartisan, bicameral commission on evidence-based policymaking.”

Recently, we participated in an experiment that shows how Congress could use online hearings to obtain more useful information from more diverse experts.

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In partnership with the Governance Lab at Northeastern University, we solicited input from a wide range of experts about how to improve Congress’s evidence-gathering ability. And the format we used for these two sessions stood out as one model for how to do it.

In less time than it would have taken to organize a traditional hearing (by virtue of being organized completely online), this process convened 53 experts from around the world, rather than the three or four witnesses in typical hearings. These participants included representatives from foreign parliaments, experts in science communication, and specialists in congressional operations, technology, and data science. Unlike the traditional congressional hearings we’re used to — where witnesses deliver long speeches — participants’ presentations were short (generally two to three minutes at most) and left time for generative conversation and the airing of disagreements.

A hearing of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change in 2021.Anna Moneymaker/Getty

Among the ideas aired in our sessions: Congress could create an updated version of the Office of Technology Assessment to better inform lawmakers about emerging technologies. Congress could appoint a chief data officer, as the Obama and Biden White Houses have, to develop tools that legislators could use to study the effectiveness and equity of the lawmaking process and the outcomes of legislation. And some experts recommended asking the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health to commit funding for researchers to distill their findings into brief memos for legislators and other nonexperts.

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We both served in Congress over multiple decades. We witnessed the decline in hearings and highly capable research staff, and we’ve watched the challenges that this country faces multiply in number and complexity. From climate change to questions of antitrust in large tech companies, and from threats to our democracy to regulating the uses and advancements of AI, members of Congress need to be able to synthesize information much more efficiently. If we are to understand new developments and challenges, Congress will need better tools and procedures. New techniques for congressional hearings could be an effective place to start.

Brian Baird and Mickey Edwards are senior advisors at The GovLab at Northeastern University. Baird served as a Democratic representative from Washington’s Third Congressional District from 1998 to 2010. Edwards served as a Republican representative from Oklahoma’s Fifth District from 1977 to 1993.