How to get along with Congress

Testifying before a congressional committee doesn’t have to be an ordeal. These tips can help agency leaders stay calm and focused under fire.

When newly-minted agency leaders come to Washington, they often bring with them ideas about how government works — or at least how it should. Because where you stand usually depends on where you sit, perspective is born of the place where you work. In my case, I spent time in the executive branch of government in the Federal Aviation Administration, the General Services Administration, and the departments of the Navy, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs.

My entry- and mid-level years were at the Navy and FAA, and back then, dealing with Congress was something discussed over beers with friends and colleagues. But as often happens, things change when you enter the senior and executive ranks. As responsibilities and visibilities increase, so does the likelihood of interacting with congressional staff members, lawmakers and other Capitol Hill power players. It is important to recognize that, when it comes to Congress, different rules apply and a little preparation goes a long way.

Tip 1: Assess your visibility

In the simplest terms, Congress legislates and the executive branch executes, and then Congress oversees that execution. That simple division of duties is not simple in its operation, however. For instance, a presidential administration might set policies in a way that legislators see as infringing on their role, and Congress can take oversight to the level of micromanagement. Pure politics can create those fault lines, but our system is designed to maintain a healthy tension between the branches.

For officials on either side, the secret to being effective and prevailing on issues that matter is to be proficient in operating at this intersection of government.

That is not always the case, of course. If the issues are small or mundane enough, components of any branch of government below a certain level can operate almost unimpeded. The situation changes when issues are bigger, more important and more contentious.

In other words, not all agency officials will need to interact with members of Congress or their staffs. For our consideration, however, let’s assume that your program or policy area draws congressional interest, which means you must be able to coexist with Congress in order to effectively do your job.

Almost by definition, congressional interest means contention and differences in opinion. Any large program that has winners or losers, real or perceived, will fall into this category. Even programs with Mary Poppins-type objectives, such as saving taxpayer dollars, produce winners and losers and will therefore encounter advocates for different ways of performing the program.

The variety of stakeholders in government programs and policies is sometimes mind-boggling. Constituencies such as veterans, senior citizens, students and farmers are among the best-known, but they are far from alone. Pick a topic, and then educate yourself on the amazing range of interested parties. Executive branch leaders often look at issues in a myopic operational or technical way, without regard to the constituencies that might be interested. Who supports or opposes your initiative is not something you want to learn for the first time at a congressional hearing.

Tip 2: Build relationships before you are called to testify

I still marvel at how badly some witnesses perform during congressional hearings, and to see members of the executive branch show up poorly prepared and poorly positioned with regard to congressional staffs is particularly disappointing. Although preparation depends on staff work in the few weeks leading up to the hearing, positioning is dependent on what you and your staff have been doing for the past two to three years.

Lynne Halbrooks, captioned

It is critical to work with congressional staffers on a regular basis. Often this means visiting them to provide program updates and briefs, even when there might not be much going on. Routine briefings on important programs are important to do often and in small doses. Telling the story as it happens increases credibility and allows time for the staff members to absorb the complexities and complications of the program.

Waiting for your program to become interesting to congressional staffers is not a good idea. It means others have likely defined the issues for you, and it will raise the question of why you haven’t been more forthcoming.

Tip 3: Know what type of hearing you’ll be attending

Even with the best relationship-building efforts, big and contentious programs will often reach a point where congressional committees feel they need to air the issues publicly in a hearing. Press coverage and congressional attention will vary depending on the level of public interest. A low-interest hearing — to discuss a small agency’s budget, for example — will have no public audience, few lawmakers or staff members attending, and two or three agency executives at the microphones. These are sleepers, and it’s important to stay awake and not offend anyone. Let’s call this a Type C hearing.

The next level of hearing — a Type B — will be a full-blown affair in the committee chambers with members of the public present, most lawmakers’ chairs occupied, and some trade and mainstream press reporters attending. There will often be photographers shooting these inside-the-Beltway types of events. Such hearings are important to the stakeholders involved and will appear in the Congressional Record, but they are unlikely to make the evening news.

Type A hearings are the ones we see on television. Cameras capture people being sworn in, witnesses sweating, lawmakers being concerned or horrified, and crowds of reporters — all under the blinding TV lights. Type A hearings are shows. Symbolism is paramount, messages are important, and changes are likely to be made as a result.

Tip 4: Do your homework, and practice, practice practice!

My experience with being a witness at Type A and B hearings has taught me some valuable lessons. First, the notice that you are being called to testify is a sobering event — not as sobering as being sworn in before the committee and cameras, but it will raise your pulse rate.
Preparation for the event is essential, and having members of your support staff who are experienced and competent is a must. The first time I was called to testify, my head of congressional affairs was a former congressman and committee chairman. His demeanor and experience lowered my blood pressure. And although issue papers, congressional staff questions and research are all vital, it doesn’t hurt to gather political intelligence. Find out what you can about the members of the committee — such as their biases, favorite issues and where they are from.

Rehearse for the hearing by having your staffers ask the kinds of hard questions that are likely to come from committee members. The drill is likely to highlight your weaknesses. Urge your team to be combative and even a little nasty during this exercise. The experience should be the worst you will see, not the best.

Also, it is critical to know what prompted the hearing and the back channels that were worked before the hearing was called. The most adversarial questions likely will not come from the committee staffers with whom you usually work; they often come from unhappy constituents with an ax to grind. If you know who’s unhappy, you can better prepare to address their concerns and accusations.

Tip 5: Document your case

Live statements at the witness table are only part of the equation. You should also prepare three documents for the hearing.

The committee will ask for the opening statement in writing at least 24 hours before the hearing. That statement is for the Congressional Record and, within reason, can be any length.
The second document is the one you read to the committee after you are sworn in. You will typically be given five minutes for that oral statement. Don’t take the full five. Members are usually inattentive, even if they are present, and don’t want to hear you drone on. Take three minutes, catch them off guard and give them back two minutes of their lives.
The third document is for the press. It is written in plain English and explains what your statement said and why the hearing was called. That document will often appear almost verbatim in press articles. Don’t complain about the press coverage if you didn’t prepare that third document.

Tip 6: Keep your cool

In general, be relaxed, dress for TV, and be polite and well mannered. Limit your remarks beyond answering questions, and don’t talk loosely during recesses or breaks. You don’t know who is nearby or what microphones are still open.

Part of preparation is trying to anticipate the questions and their tone and then phrase the proper answers. The subtle part of the hearing is the banter and attitude of the participants. Listen carefully to the opening remarks and adjust according. Be on the lookout for those “zinger” questions from unhappy parties you identified earlier. Those are often easy to spot because they have an edge that exposes the unhappiness. If you are asked, “Is your agency so efficient that it received 140 pages of comments on Friday and still released the request for proposals on Monday?” you know the question was not submitted by your friend. The only defense to that type of ambush question is superior intelligence gathering. If you get such a question, be gracious, thank the lawmaker for his or her attention to your agency’s efficiency and answer the question as best you can.

Another tactic of trial lawyers and committee members is the hypothetical question: “Mr. Woods, if you could do it over again….” Hypothetical questions attempt to draw out a damaging answer to an inquiry without foundation. When a question contains the words “if” or “looking back” or “in retrospect,” you are being asked to answer a hypothetical question. Don’t do it.

The best retort I've heard to a rhetorical was given by Sandra Bates, former commissioner of GSA’s Federal Technology Service. When she got a “looking back” question from former Rep. Tom Davis, who was chairman of the House Government Reform Committee at the time, Bates answered, “My mother said it was OK to look back as long as you didn’t stare.”

The key to responding to those questions is not to give them credence. In other words, dumb questions should not be given serious answers or consideration. “If we could turn back the clock 50 years” doesn’t warrant a thoughtful reply unless you know something I don’t about the existence of time machines. A question that begins “If you were 7 feet 4 inches tall” deserves an answer such as “I would be working for the NBA, not for this agency.” Remember: Real questions cannot be answered by fantasy answers, and fantasy questions should not be answered by real ones.

Everyone would benefit from better communication between the executive and legislative branches. Although there are times when those interactions seem less effective and border on being toxic, I believe the basics of building relationships and making government work better are much as they have always been. Honesty and directness are important, but you will never get there without preparing and carefully managing perceptions.

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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