Both chambers of Congress exercise oversight responsibility over executive branch agencies. Lately, it seems there are more oversight hearings, with career employees sometimes being called into the hot seat. It can be a scary proposition because of subpoenas, large hearing rooms, written and oral testimony, reporters and perhaps other unfamiliar occurrences.
A positive oversight experience requires coordination, preparation and candor. Most of all, the process must be taken seriously. Congress eventually will either get the information it wants, or it will make the career federal employee very uncomfortable.
First, assess whether the inquiry concerns a program review or personal exposure. If you believe you have exposure because of some specific act or omission, or which might make your agency so unhappy that it could propose discipline, take special care. Visit the general counsel’s office to determine the tone and nature of support you have. It is almost always better to be a part of the agency’s team in responding to Congress. If you are unsure whether you are on the team or you fear personal exposure, take protective steps, including seeking private legal advice.
In extreme cases, you could have exposure to criminal prosecution. Criminal exposure could require the careful exercise of constitutional rights. This should only be done with the advice of counsel, and your agency’s general counsel is not in a position to provide such representation.
If the oversight is about a program or a political appointee, you still need to be careful. A program review gone bad can reflect poorly on you. A political appointee who appears to be under scrutiny may look for a vulnerable scapegoat.
You will probably learn of an oversight inquiry from your agency’s legislative affairs office. If not, call that office right away. Don’t make a move on the inquiry without coordinating with legislative affairs and make sure that office puts everyone in the loop. Contact the general counsel’s office. If the matter has previously been examined by the agency’s inspector general, make sure that office knows. It will help with preparation for the hearing, and it will avoid any big mistakes.
You must then prepare. Read everything. Anticipate everything. Learn what the other side is saying and prepare responses. Congressional hearings are relatively short, and you want to take advantage of the limited opportunity to make the best impression.
Try to have your legislative affairs office, general counsel’s office and any relevant program offices work together to prepare the presentation, anticipate questions and develop appropriate answers. Research and data that is responsive to the oversight must be complete and accurate.
Learn about the committee members. What are their interests? Which constituencies will the member most likely respect? Has the member had a concern about the issue under review? Develop your testimony to assure it is as helpful as possible, to the agency and the oversight committee.
The legislative affairs office should know about rules and practices of the committee that wants your testimony. How many copies of testimony are to be printed? How many minutes is the opening statement? These questions should be answered before any formal responses are given to the committee.
The surest way to lose is to fail to be truthful. That said, there is more than one way to give a truthful and complete answer. Care should be taken to assure that truthful answers present you and your agency in the best light.
Congressional hearings are also platforms for Congress members to make statements to their constituents. If it appears the member is only using the hearing as a means to state his opinion, a response is not necessarily required.
Expect follow-up questions. Also, many who testify before Congress promise follow-up information. Make sure questions are answered, and information is provided in a timely manner.
Work with the legislative affairs experts and you will make the best of congressional oversight, an experience that is not meant to be pleasant or necessarily career-enhancing.