Tevi Troy explains for National Affairs readers why he believes Congress should take greater advantage of its ability to hold hearings.

… [O]ur system is designed to limit what each branch can do on its own. Congress can’t pass laws without the president’s signature. Executive orders and presidential directives cannot attain permanence without legislative cooperation. Courts rule on laws already passed by Congress and on the constitutionality of administration actions. That said, there are some things that each branch can do independently. With respect to Congress, perhaps its most powerful stand-alone tool is the Congressional hearing: No presidential signature is required for action, and one needs only a majority to run a hearing.

The Congressional hearing offers tools Congress will need if it is to begin to reclaim its rightful, Constitutional place as the most powerful branch of government. In the mid-20th century, hearings rapidly became a common means by which both parties advanced their agendas. With the rise of television, these experiments in political theater captured the nation’s attention, making and breaking political careers and bringing important issues to the public’s attention. But the drop in the number of hearings in recent years suggests that the heyday of the hearing may be behind us.

As one of the only avenues for independent Congressional action, hearings offer a valuable political resource for the majority party in Congress. If Republicans are to take full advantage of this resource during the 114th Congress?—?or during any future Congresses they control?—?they need to understand the history, import, potential, and pitfalls of the Congressional hearing. …

… In order to understand the potential and possibilities of hearings, it is important to look at the variety of reasons why hearings take place. Earlier hearings were more likely to be of an investigative nature, and while these are probably the best known kind of hearing, they are far from the only kind. Political scientist Holly Brasher has attempted to characterize the various types of hearings and found that one of the most remarkable things about them is how little consensus there has been about the role they play. According to Brasher, hearings have been variously described as opportunities for fact-finding; for social catharsis; to develop, consolidate, and reinforce existing support; to increase support among new constituencies; for window dressing; for political theater; to manage the legislative process; and for a member to demonstrate specialized knowledge to other members or the outside world. Current legislators should take note: Each of these different purposes requires different strategies, approaches, and skills on the part of those running the show.

Obviously, with all of these kinds of hearings, no one member can master all of the different approaches. Members can, and indeed must, learn to use hearings to suit their larger goals. But while there may be no consensus on the purpose of congressional hearings in the academic world, and all of the above categories will sound familiar to those with even a basic understanding of Congress, it is clear that hearings aim to serve one overarching purpose: to advance the political and policy goals of the party in the majority. Naïfs may argue that the goal should be to provide Congress with the best possible information and ensure the best possible legislative result. But the fact of the matter is that Congress does not and has not acted in that way, and an analysis along those lines would fail to account for the real role that hearings play in our system.