What It Takes to Testify Before Congress

What it takes to testify before Congress.

Ruth Livier was so nervous about speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee that on her way to Capitol Hill she read her testimony aloud to her cab driver. (He clapped.) Livier hadn't been subpoenaed; she wasn't in trouble. The Los Angeles-based actor and writer had been asked to appear before the panel last month as a witness in support of net neutrality.

Livier testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 17. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)How had she come to be there? The answer is part of the larger story of how congressional committees choose witnesses, expert and otherwise, to share their knowledge and offer their opinions on the Hill.

Appearing before Congress is a great way to get one's perspective heard by the nation's decision-makers. And in the competitive Washington world, says William N. LaForge, author of Testifying Before Congress, it is also a major "bragging right." But becoming a member of that club typically involves more than waiting around for a call. All power players want to weigh in on the policy issues facing Congress, so trade associations, corporations, and lobbyists essentially compete to have their CEOs, experts, or clients testify. "You want a seat at the table," says LaForge, who spent more than 20 years as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, "and that's how you get it. You fight for it."

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.

The Judiciary Committee, which holds hearings on topics ranging from voting rights to satellite TV, often gets far more requests to testify than it can accommodate. To give those who are not chosen to appear in person an opportunity to share their thoughts, the panel keeps the hearing record open for a week, allowing interested parties to submit written testimony. Sometimes, witnesses are federal officials: the attorney general, a representative of the Homeland Security Department. But, a committee aide says, other voices are often useful as well. And that's where Livier's testimony comes in.

In 2000, Livier was an actor on the Showtime series Resurrection Blvd. when she began creating her own show, a "bicultural dramedy" called Ylse, about an American Latina. She pitched her script to media executives at a conference dedicated to nurturing Latino talent, but they were skeptical: Who would watch a Latina-driven show created by an untested writer? How many Latinos would watch this program in English? "After a while, it was clear that it was pointless to try," Livier says. "I was discouraged. I didn't see a way in." She filed her script away.

Years later, viral videos began to take off, and Livier's friends told her this was her chance: She could produce her show exactly the way she wanted, upload it to the Web, and find an audience. In 2008, she began to rewrite her script. That summer, Livier uploaded the show's first webisode. Within two hours, a journalist for the website Latina Lista had found it. She reviewed the show, recommended it, and people started to stream it. Livier and her collaborators filmed two seasons and saw viewership grow to about half a million earlier this year.

"We were pretty blown away by the power of the open Internet," says Livier.

That was just the perspective Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy was looking to bring to his Sept. 17 hearing on net neutrality. The Vermont Democrat had held a hearing on the topic in July in his home state, where he had heard real accounts from real people about how a free and open Internet had affected them personally. He wanted to bring similar voices to the committee's hearing.

The chairman and his staff knew the Internet was responsible for Ylse's success—and that Livier had testified in favor of net neutrality before the Federal Communications Commission and the Free Press Action Fund, and had advocated it in blog posts since 2009, according to a Judiciary Committee aide.

So a week after the committee contacted her, Livier found herself in a taxi on her way to SH-216, to join a witness panel that included a former FCC commissioner; a scholar from the American Enterprise Institute's Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy; the Center for Democracy & Technology's president and CEO; and a managing partner of a venture-capital firm. When she got there, Livier calmly delivered her testimony. This time, nobody clapped. But she had officially added her voice to the policy debate.