So, You've Been Asked to Testify
Guidelines for Congressional Hearings
"...there is a strong belief — inside and outside of Congress
— that holding public hearings is one of the more important things that
Congress does. In recent years, Congress has been averaging several
thousand hearings per year, calling upon tens of thousands of witnesses."
— Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for Scientists and Engineers.
William G. Wells, Jr.
Hearings are very important to Members of Congress. If you look at hearings schedules, you can see that Congress devotes a lot of time on and energy in them. Below are some pointers on appearing as a witness in a hearing before a congressional committee.
A. Handling a Request for Testimony
- Inform your federal relations officer in your Office of Congressional/Government Affairs.
- Ask Congressional staff to put the request for testimony in writing, along with any information concerning required number of copies of written testimony, etc. A copy of the request should be forward to your federal relations office.
B. Preparing Testimony
- Understand the purpose of the hearings. Respond to the needs of the committee and its invitation.
- Consult with committee staff* in advance — sometimes they will tell you what questions their bosses are likely to ask — these staffers often draft these questions.
- Where personal opinions are given, these should be carefully delineated: "My personal opinion is... Again, that is my personal opinion."
- Choose points that have policy relevance. Keep the language as non-technical and simple as possible. "Your audience doesn't have a scientific or technical background, so write for the layperson," (Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for Scientists and Engineers).
- Check in advance on the desired format of the statements. Some committees require single-spaced testimony of no more than five pages; others require double-spaced testimony at ten pages.
- Often the Executive Summary can be paraphrased and summarized as a basis for the testimony. Place your Summary up front and highlight your key points. A staff member said, "We like statements that convey facts, contain original analysis, and clearly state a position," (Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for Scientists and Engineers).
- Inquire about other witnesses. It is often helpful to try to find out in advance who else will be testifying and what their key points will be. Hearings are often deliberately set up to hear opposing points of views.
- Begin your testimony with a short paragraph of introduction: "Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. My name is -----. I am Dean of the College of ---.
EXAMPLE — Testimony given by Rick Anthes before the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, House Committee on Science, February 1999:
"Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science. My name is Richard A. Anthes and I am President of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). UCAR is a consortium of 62 universities of higher education in North America. UCAR includes nearly all U.S. universities with Ph.D. programs in atmospheric, oceanic and related sciences. UCAR operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies.
"On behalf of the National Research Council's National Weather Service Modernization Committee, I am pleased to summarize the work to date of the committee..."
C. Review of Testimony
- The Executive Director of the Committee you are speaking on behalf of, and your Office of Congressional/Government Affairs should review testimony before it goes to the Hill.
D. Production, Delivery and Presentation
- All committees have instructions that vary. Congressional committees often ask for copies of the testimony 48 hours in advance of the hearings. Unless you are asked at the last minute, bringing your statement with you on the day of the hearing is not acceptable. When appropriate, copies of the Executive Summary or of the full report should be offered in advance to the hearing committee's staff contact.
- Be especially brief in your oral testimony. You will be given a certain amount of time — usually about 10 minutes — to summarize your statement. It usually takes 2–2.5 minutes to read one double-spaced page. This means a maximum of 4–5 pages for your summary.
- UCAR's Office of Government Affairs can provide information for witnesses concerning relevant interests of the congressional committee chairman and members and can sometimes anticipate questions that are potentially difficult or controversial.
E. Post-Hearing Mortem
- In many congressional hearings, it is customary for members and staff to submit questions in writing to a witness for later answers. Respond promptly to such questions submitted for the record. You can also take this opportunity to offer additional commets on questions posed to you earlier in the hearing itself.
- After the hearing, you will be sent an excerpt of the transcript of the hearing record. This will contain your oral statement and hearing Q&A responses. Although you will not be permitted to rewrite your testimony, you will be allowed to correct any mistakes in the transcription.
- Follow up with the committee staff contact. Thank the staffer for their help and guidance during this process, and offer your assistance to them in the future.
* Members of Congress rely heavily on their staff. Be aware that the staffer serves as a liaison to the Member and often briefs the Member on science and policy issues. Relationships with these staff people are very important to cultivate.
Information provided by the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.