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The Dirty Dozen: 12 Tips for Testifying Before Congress

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The Dirty Dozen: 12 Tips for Testifying Before Congress

June 25, 2019

I have had the privilege of testifying before congressional committees multiple times, both in my service as a public trustee for Social Security and Medicare, and as an academic expert on a range of public-policy issues. This list of 12 tips is written in an effort to offer helpful guidance to others who are invited to testify.

#1: Be selective; only testify if you have genuine expertise to offer. Testifying before Congress is a rarely granted honor and difficult to pass up. Nevertheless, it is better to decline an invitation than to waste committee members’ time, or still worse to embarrass yourself, by being unable to satisfy their desire for useful information. Be honest with committee staff and with yourself about whether you have genuine expertise on any subject about which you might be questioned in a hearing format.

#2: Written testimony is not a forum for conducting original research. The written statement you submit should consist only of material you verified long before the hearing. If you are researching an aspect of the subject for the first time when drafting your testimony, this means you do not already have the requisite expertise in it. By all means, include original and compelling passages in your written testimony. But the substantive material contained within it should be only that which you had already mastered and substantiated before you accepted the invitation.

#3: Draft a separate oral version of your testimony. The typical procedure is that you will submit a written statement before testifying, and then at the hearing deliver a time-limited opening statement usually lasting no more than five minutes. Your oral statement should draw from the material in your written testimony but it should be a separately written document. Practice delivering it, practice it again, and then practice it some more, timing yourself on each run. If you’re like me, a statement written to be five minutes long will actually last closer to 7-8 minutes the first few times you rehearse. Practice and prune as necessary until you can consistently deliver it in five minutes (ideally in four and a half) without rushing. By the time you appear, you should be reciting your statement in a conversational tone more than you are reading it, so that you can effectively engage your audience during delivery.

 #4: Pick three main points to emphasize in your oral statement. Do not attempt to cover all of your written testimony’s content in your oral remarks. Decide on the three or so primary things you think are most important for committee members to know, and focus on those. You needn’t give exactly 100 seconds to each of your three points, but try to come reasonably close. If you give too much or too little time to any single point, your cogency will suffer. I typically write down, at three or four places in the printed version of my oral remarks, the amount of time I want to have elapsed by the time I reach each point, to keep track of whether I am proceeding at the desired pace.

#5: This is not about you, and especially not about your opinions. Your job in testifying is to provide information; it is not to explain why members of Congress should have the same opinions about an issue that you do. Remember the old adage about opinions. They’re like belly buttons: everybody’s got one. You’re there because you have expertise to offer, not because your opinions are better than anybody else’s. The only time you should offer a subjective opinion is if you are directly asked to do so. Otherwise, focus on providing information that can inform the legislative process.

#6: Prepare answers to questions you are likely to receive. Talk to staff ahead of time, ideally on both sides of the aisle, about questions their members have an interest in asking you. Ask your own colleagues if they are willing to send you examples of questions to be ready for. You don’t necessarily need to write out detailed answers to them all, but you should know how you intend to answer each one. Obviously, it’s impossible to anticipate every possible question you might be asked. Nevertheless, it’s almost certain you will spend more time preparing for the hearing than any one member does. It’s actually quite possible for you to get through an entire hearing without receiving a single question you hadn’t prepared for.

#7: Be respectful of the committee members’ time. A member’s time in a hearing is an extremely precious commodity. You might be sitting at the witness table for hours, but a specific member might be given only five minutes to question you. That’s likely the only time the member’s constituents and hometown press will see them performing at the hearing. Respect every second of that time. Keep your answers short. Watch the member while you’re speaking, and be ready to clam up if they are itching to jump in. If the member wants to spend the entire time talking rather than questioning you, don’t get in their way.

#8: Prioritize information useful to committee members on both sides of the aisle. It’s typical for witnesses to be invited by one side or the other, meaning by the majority or the minority party. But regardless of which side invited you, your job is to provide information to the entire committee. You are likely doing your job well if you provide information that committee members on both sides of the aisle use to make opposing policy arguments. This means your information is deemed credible and is providing a factual foundation for the policy debate.

#9: Don’t bluff. Remember that your primary obligation at all times is to be truthful. You can’t offer truth where you don’t know it. If a committee member asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to, admit it, and offer to follow up after the hearing. Do not guess, unless specifically asked to do so, and unless you make clear to everyone that you’re guessing.

#10: Don’t interject when committee members are not looking for you to do so. There will likely be many times during a hearing when a member or another witness says something you believe glosses over a key aspect of an issue. By all means fill in an information gap if a question has been thrown open to all the witnesses at the table, but otherwise restrain yourself unless asked directly. If a member presents a one-sided view of an issue it’s the job of members across the aisle, not yours, to present the other side. It’s totally appropriate to say privately to staff before or even during a hearing that there are certain things you would like to be asked. But when in front of the microphone, only pipe up if you are asked (or in the very rare instance that your silence would signal tacit agreement with a mischaracterization of your statements). It’s a better outcome for a point to be left unexplored than for a member to misperceive you as playing a partisan role.

#11: Printed material is good to have on hand for study purposes, but is rarely used during the hearing itself. I tend to load up on printed reference material, to feel secure and fully informed while at the witness table. However, its principal utility comes during the process of compiling and studying it prior to the hearing. It’s almost never the case that you will have time during questioning to rifle through a tall stack of papers searching for a substantive detail. Anything you don’t know off the top of your head is best dealt with in follow-up exchanges.

#12: Visit the restroom right before the hearing begins, and go easy on the coffee. Congressional hearings can sometimes last for several hours without a break. ’Nuff said.

Enjoy the rare opportunity you have been given, and good luck!

Charles Blahous is the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Chair and Senior Research Strategist at the Mercatus Center, a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution, and a contributor to E21. He recently served as a public trustee for Social Security and Medicare.

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