Congress - Listen!

'Hearings' all too easily become boring 'talkings'

Just as soon as Congress passed a bill to balance the budget by the year 2002, a variety of members rushed to undo that long-awaited accomplishment. Five years before the balance is scheduled to be achieved, legislative leaders are beginning to generate new, innovative spending programs that can only make a balanced budget less likely.

Under these circumstances, my advice to Congress is to adjourn - go home and stay there for the rest of the year. By no means should we encourage senators and representatives to use that spare time to travel around their states or districts to make speeches. If they did so, they would be missing a great opportunity. Legislators already have talked enough. Now it should be their turn to listen. For example, they could use some of the free time to find out how the laws they passed - welfare reform, tax benefits, regulatory extensions, etc. - really work.

I do not mean they should hold more general meetings on these topics. Enough of that occurs in Washington on a regular basis. Rather, each member of Congress, without any fanfare, should visit a local government office and quietly observe the normal procedures of the agency. Sitting in the back of the room, they should just listen to ordinary citizens dealing with their government.

Rather than mainly meeting with constituents who come to gripe or seek favors, they should take the initiative and broaden their range of interaction. Thus, it would be great if a conservative Republican senator would go to a local labor union and learn firsthand about the range of items that unions deal with. They might come to understand which issues that group of workers considers important and why.

Similarly, a liberal Democratic representative should visit a company and see how it tries to produce and sell some product or service in a heavily regulated environment. That might be a real eye-opener to someone who thinks that "greedy capitalist" is a one-word description of every entrepreneur.

Our legislators should make some time for formal education. Each member should sit in some classes at the local college or junior college. In this time of rising isolationist sentiment, a class in international relations would be useful. So would a seminar in economics - at the sophomore or junior level - dealing with current problems facing the United States in an increasingly global marketplace. The legislator should not take on the role of visiting lecturer, but something basically easier (though perhaps harder for them): sit quietly and listen.

If members would follow this procedure for the next four months or so, a fundamental change might occur in the way Congress does its work when they return. By learning to listen to someone else talk, they might restore the congressional "hearing" to its traditional role. Today, members of Congress spend little time actually hearing the witnesses they invite to testify on some issue. Rather, the members spend much - often most - of the time just talking.

Take the recent Senate hearings on campaign finance. It does not take a genius to figure out why the public so quickly turned off this important event. On the critical opening day of the "hearing," not a single witness was called. Instead, every member of the committee gave a speech. Not yet having heard their first witness, most really had nothing new to say. The result was not a "hearing" but a boring "talking."

We citizens were powerless to stop that windbag routine, but no senator had the power to force us to listen. Unfortunately, doing more "talking" than "hearing" is commonplace in Congress.

Restoring congressional hearings to their historic purpose would do more than shorten them. More time would be available for the serious business of writing the laws. Instead of rushing important bills to enactment, Congress would have more time to improve the quality of its legislative output. Now that would be something worth talking about!

* Murray Weidenbaum is chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

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