Evaluating Congress's information processing capacity

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By Jonathan Lewallen, Bryan Jones, and Sean Theriault

Two big questions emerged from the recent congressional capacity conference: “capacity for what?” and “capacity for whom?” These are great questions that ask us to think about Congress’s role in U.S. politics and policy and about whether one “solution” to Congress’s capacity problem is appropriate or whether we need a more targeted approach. Our research speaks to both questions by focusing on how Congress processes information to fulfill its different responsibilities and in finding clear differences across issue areas in both overall capacity and changes to that capacity over time.

Congress as an institution has multiple, at times competing responsibilities in the U.S. political system: solving public problems and collective representation. When we consider congressional capacity—and try to evaluate Congress’s capacity—we need something that covers the many different activities that fall into these two categories.

Congressional capacity is critically dependent upon information processing, which is how individuals and organizations turn inputs into outputs. This processing entails three components: the inputs, the routines for translating and transmitting those inputs, and the outputs. Thinking about Congress and congressional capacity in terms of information processing helps us account for both of Congress’s responsibilities in making policy and providing a forum for different societal interests.

If information processing helps Congress fulfill its responsibilities, then its capacity for doing so is the committee system. Committee hearings represent all three elements of information processing with witness testimony and answers representing policy inputs; the how the committee prioritizes, synthesizes, and integrates those inputs as the transforming process; and issue attention and any new information that results from a hearing as policy outputs. In studying congressional hearings, we are particularly interested in the first two of these: the number of witnesses testifying and how the hearings are conducted, including what we term their purpose and stance, and how those measures have changed over time. In our coding scheme a hearing can have one of three purposes: a focus on policy problems, implementation of existing policy, and proposed policy solutions. In our dataset of approximately 22,000 hearings we code hearing stances by whether they are positional (in which every witness takes the same position) or exploratory (in which the committee either hears a range of opinion or receives neutral analysis). While change does not necessarily mean a decrease in capacity, we have reason to believe that a decrease in the number of witnesses and an increase in positional hearings correspond to a decrease in the range of information and interests included in congressional policymaking.

The good news for those concerned about whether congressional hearings help the institution is that at least half of the hearings for every issue have incorporated multiple viewpoints, and the overall average is 69 percent, though we find significant variation across issues. At least 75 percent of hearings on defense, agriculture, environment, and energy issues have been exploratory, while for issues like education and commerce that figure is closer to 55 percent.

We also find that changes to hearings over time have varied by issue, and not in a way that lines up with familiar partisan cleavages. Information processing through hearings on environment and international affairs issues have stayed relatively stable over the past 40 years, while health, public lands, and social welfare issues show significant declines in the number of testifying witnesses and the percentage of exploratory hearings that hear from multiple viewpoints. By contrast, a few issues like defense and science and technology have seen a decrease in positional hearings over time.

As we evaluate Congress’s information processing capacity, we need to consider any differences that exist not only among individual members and across chambers, but also across issues. As the Brookings Institution’s Molly Reynolds noted at the recent conference, issues differ in both their supply and demand for capacity due to their different information environments. When designing solutions to Congress’s capacity problem, we might look to science and technology and defense to understand what lessons these issues might provide for other areas where capacity could be improved.

Jonathan Lewallen is assistant professor of political science at University of Tampa, Bryan Jones is professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin, and Sean Theriault is distinguished professor of government at University of Texas, Austin.