Democrats turn to Web to conduct 'e-hearing'

Several House Democrats, frustrated with House rules that allow only the majority party to convene hearings, yesterday said they would hold their own online hearing to draw attention to their concerns about retiree pension plans at bankrupt United Airlines.

Billed as the House of Representatives’ first “e-hearing,” the event is being conducted by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

During the course of this week, Miller will solicit testimony from United Airlines employees and retirees from a page on the committee’s website, edworkforce.house.gov/democrats/unitedhearing.html, which already sports an opening statement from Miller and prepared testimony from two union officials and an academic. The committee’s Democratic staff will then write a report on the testimony, which will be included in the Congressional Record, said Miller spokesman Tom Kiley. The online hearing will lack the traditional question-and-answer session that characterizes regular hearings.

Miller resorted to the online approach after having repeatedly asked the committee’s chairman, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), for hearings on pension issues, Kiley said.

“We have been warning about the consequences of inaction on the pension crisis … but Republicans have made private pensions a back-burner issue,” Kiley said.

This online hearing would be the first in a number of hearings that “will focus on issues that are ignored by the Republican leadership of the United States Congress,” the website said.

Democrats have been increasingly frustrated with their lack of power in Washington and the difficulty of attracting attention to issues of concern to them. After losing control of the Senate in 2002, they have been unable to convene traditional hearings in either chamber without the consent of Republicans.

To circumvent those restrictions, enterprising Democrats began late last year to hold events closely resembling official congressional hearings, so similar that they would garner the same coverage from the press and from transcript services.

Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, came under fire from Republicans last December when he and Judiciary Committee Democrats held an event in a Rayburn Building hearing room and billed it as a hearing. Conyers was repeatedly addressed as “Mr. Chairman” during the event, which focused on voting irregularities in Ohio.

Since then, Conyers has called similar events “forums.” One such forum took place yesterday, addressing the issue of media bias.

Senate Democrats in January began using the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, which is a Democratic leadership committee rather than a bipartisan committee, to hold hearings scrutinizing administration policies.

“Members are becoming more interested in these types of things because of the lack of power they have in committee. It reflects a turn in the minority in that we are looking for ways to get our voice out,” said a House Democratic aide familiar with both Conyers’s and Miller’s efforts to hold hearings outside of the traditional committee structure.

Some Republicans took issue with Miller’s plans for an online hearing.

A spokesman for Boehner said, “Chairman Boehner does not recognize it as a hearing and is concerned that others could confuse it with regular committee proceedings that focus on official business.”

The spokesman added that the committee had held an adequate number of hearings on private pensions already.

“Defined-benefit pension plans and the crisis with those plans are something we’ve covered in depth. We don’t need to hold another hearing,” the spokesman said, noting that Republicans were in the process of drafting pension-reform legislation.

“What they’re doing is not technically wrong; it just misleads people,” said Brian J. Walsh, a Republican spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the House websites. “It would be more accurate to call it an online forum or an online town meeting. I think it’s misleading because it lends the appearance that it’s something official.”