Those battles often take a form familiar to most in Washington: "I think a lot of that has to do with folks like ourselves in the consulting world having strong relationships with key committee staff," says Jennifer Higgins, a partner at the public policy and consulting firm Chamber Hill Strategies. Higgins says her work begins long before a hearing is even assigned: The first step is chatting with members of Congress and congressional staffers about issues they care about that also align with a client's interests. Identifying and creating opportunities is essential, she says.
But committees aren't going to call just anyone to the table; potential witnesses must be credible. Giving testimony is "an honor," says Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, but it's also "at some level, a validation" of the relevance of one's work. O'Hanlon, a national security and foreign policy expert who testifies before Congress about once or twice a year, says his organization's communications strategy includes efforts to keep him and his peers on Capitol Hill's radar through everything from invitations to events to a regular email roundup of published journal articles. "If nothing else, that helps them remember your name," O'Hanlon says.
Even top experts on a subject aren't guaranteed an opportunity to testify at a relevant hearing, however. The witness-selection process varies from committee to committee, even sometimes from hearing to hearing. "Each committee governs itself," LaForge says. "They're very autonomous, very independent."
The Senate Budget Committee, for example, says it strives for a combination of participants: those who can explain the wonky, policy side of the federal budget and those who can speak to the day-to-day impact of fiscal decisions. The panel typically finds the latter type through community organizations, advocates, and nonprofits, a Democratic committee spokeswoman says.
Other Senate committees, such as Veterans' Affairs, rely almost exclusively on a few core groups of contributors—in its case, government officials, representatives from veterans organizations, and veterans themselves. A committee spokesperson also notes that the rosters are not always compiled the same way: Sometimes, the chair and ranking member agree on a joint witness list; other times, the majority and the minority each select their own witnesses.
The Senate Armed Services Committee usually has government officials testify. If outside witnesses are needed, the majority and minority staffs work together to come up with a group representing a wide array of views—and will reimburse witnesses' travel expenses if needed to ensure that's the case, according to a committee spokeswoman.
Senior administration officials commonly testify at Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, says a minority committee aide, but sometimes the majority and minority also choose private witnesses, such as policy experts, academics, former government officials, and others with a deep knowledge of the subject at hand.