Congress goes prime time

Greg Nash

There's a new trend on Capitol Hill: Contentious committee hearings in prime time.

Recently, House committees have started hearings after dinner, often at 7 p.m. 

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C-SPAN has covered 35 prime-time hearings over the past 31 years. Five of those hearings have occurred since May 2014, making this year the biggest in prime-time hearing scheduling since 1995.

“It seems like a new approach,” said Terry Murphy, Vice President of Programming at C-SPAN. “There are often hearings that go late, but these are unique in that they start late.”

“It’s more noticeable now than in prior years,” said C-SPAN Communications Director Howard Mortman. 

A House aide pointed out that most nighttime hearings aren't interrupted by votes and are easier to schedule because of fewer conflicts in the evenings. 

Another factor that could be in play: Congress's condensed work week means more has to be done when lawmakers are in town. And of course, members of Congress aren't shy around cameras and they are more likely to attend high-profile hearings that attract media attention.

“I think it's a win-win strategy from a scheduling standpoint because you don’t have to conflict with roll call votes,” said Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University. “It also has the potential to capture more attention and produce bigger audiences. People can become aware of the hearing during the day and decide to watch that as opposed to a cable-talking-head show.”

However, it's unlikely that most congressional panels will start to hold evening hearings because fundraisers are often held after office hours.

Most of the prime-time hearings this year have focused on the scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service.

Some have gotten heated, such as when Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) demanded that IRS Commissioner John Koskinen explain the missing emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner’s computer.

“I did not say I would provide you emails that disappeared,” Koskinen responded. “If you have a magical way for me to do that, I’d be happy to hear about it.”

“I’ve lost my patience with you,” Issa fired back. “You took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. … Mr. Commissioner, at the minimum, you did not tell the whole truth of what you knew that day.”

During the most recent prime-time hearing on July 8, VA official James Tuchschmidt said that he was “disillusioned” and “sickened” by the VA whistleblower situation.

“We failed in the trust America placed in us to fulfill our mission,” he said. "The stories I've heard tonight clearly depict, in my mind, a broken system."

C-SPAN doesn’t track ratings of its live coverage, but archived C-SPAN videos of prime-time hearings have gotten more views than many hearings that have occurred during the day. While most hearings during business hours garner website views in the hundreds, only one prime-time hearing in the C-SPAN archives from this year has fewer than 1,000 views. The IRS targeting investigation hearing has the third highest number of views of any C-SPAN hearing video since May 1.

 

Number of prime-time hearings in Congress:*

1994: 2

1995: 5

1996: 1

1997: 1

1998: 2

1999: 3

2000: 0

2001: 1

2002: 2

2003: 3

2004: 1

2005: 2

2006: 0

2007: 1

2008: 2

2009: 1

2010: 0

2011: 1

2012: 0

2013: 1

2014: 5 (1)

*covered by C-SPAN; hearing started after 5 pm.

1 — through May

Source: C-SPAN