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What Are Senate Hearings?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 17, 2024
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Senate hearings are an important part of the work of the United States Senate. Both houses of Congress hold hearings in order to gather information, review the performance of government organizations and investigate possible wrongdoing. In addition, the Senate holds confirmation hearings to approve appointments made by the executive branch.

There are four main types of Senate hearings. Legislative hearings are hearings intended to gather information as part of the process of drafting legislation. The Senate, or the Senate committee responsible for the legislation, calls witnesses to provide testimony relating to the subject of the proposed legislation. This type of hearing serves one of Congress's most important tasks, that of proposing and passing legislation. The reports of Congressional legislative hearings often form the basis for subsequent legislation.

Oversight hearings are Senate hearings that examine the functioning of government activities. Although the executive branch is responsible for carrying out Congress's instructions, Congress retains the right and responsibility to oversee its work. This is part of the system of checks and balances that runs throughout the structure of the United States government. The procedure of an oversight hearing is similar to a legislative hearing, in that it involves the Senate, or a committee, calling witnesses to provide information on a particular subject.

Investigative hearings are similar in some ways to oversight hearings. In an investigative hearing, the Senate investigates misconduct, primarily by government officials but also in cases when it has determined that a situation requires some kind of legislative involvement. An example of this type of hearing is the Senate War Investigating Committee, formed in 1947 to investigate claims of corruption in wartime procurement. Some Senate investigative hearings result in prosecution, while others, like the War Investigating Committee, do not.

Legislative, oversight and investigative committees are common to both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Confirmation hearings, by contrast, occur only in the Senate. In these Senate hearings, the Senate determines whether or not to approve an individual appointed by the executive branch. The Senate exercises this right as part of its "advice and consent" role. Positions which require Senate confirmation hearings include Supreme Court justices, ambassadors and other senior government officials.

Another aspect of the "advice and consent" role of the Senate is its responsibility to ratify treaties. Senate hearings relating to treaties and similar government agreements are, like confirmation hearings, often routine. However, on occasion they can result in radical changes in government policy.

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Discussion Comments
By TreeMan — On Feb 22, 2012

@matthewc23 - Mistakes do sometimes happen, but Senators are selected by their perspective parties to run for a reason and I am sure they educate themselves quickly on the proper procedures which to follow.

I have to wonder exactly how they do this though, as the whole process of the Senate seems to be fairly complicated as far as the procedures go. I wonder if for any new Senator coming in they give them a crash course, so to speak, on educating them on the procedures which to follow in the different hearings they have.

By matthewc23 — On Feb 22, 2012

@Izzy78 - I was very surprised that an Impeachment hearing was not included in the list of Senate hearings in this article. It could be that it almost never happens and that it may fall into the lines of an Investigative hearing, but that is more of the House's job to investigate and the Senate's job is to try the person accused by the House.

I find it interesting that the procedures follow differently depending on what is being discussed and I have to wonder if a Senator has to make sure they know what they can and cannot do for each type of Senate hearing in order to make sure they know what to do properly.

I only say this because they are elected by the people and may not necessarily have intimate knowledge of how Washington works, as well as mistakes happening, which I have seen on CSPAN.

By Izzy78 — On Feb 21, 2012

@kentuckycat - That is true. The functions of the four types of Senate hearings vary depending on exactly what they are and what the issues at hand are. One type of hearing that I noticed is not mentioned in this article is an impeachment hearing.

Using the Presidential process of an impeachment hearing as an example, it entails that the Senate tries the President who has been charged with impeachment by the House, and they have the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court oversee and be the judge in the manner.

This has only happened twice in American history and is definitely something that is not ordinary and in both instances the people involved were not accustomed to the rules concerning it.

I know Chief Justice Reinquist had to have a review beforehand of the rules concerning the hearing and what is allowed before he would agree to hold it in the Senate chamber, but the rules were definitely different than other Senate hearings.

By kentuckycat — On Feb 20, 2012

Basically all a Senate hearing is is the normal process by which the body of the United States Senate functions and exactly what they do to carry out their duties in a legislative body.

Most people would not think that there are four different types of hearings and would only think that they all fall under one type of hearing, but this is not the case as the Senate has different rules and procedures to follow each and every type of hearing that they have.

For example, all that Senate confirmation hearings are are simply reviews similar to job interviews in which the Senate votes on whether or not someone, who has been appointed, is qualified to hold the post that the President has appointed them to.

In this instance all they simply do is ask questions for however long they feel, and eventually have a vote to decide whether or not the person should hold the position.

Unlike the Legislative Hearing, they do not have their decision go through review of the President or the House, as they are the ones that ultimately decide whether an appointed person is fit to hold office.

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