Who Do Members of Congress Receive Information from When Making Policies?

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Leann Mclaren, covers the new article by Pamela Ban, Ju Yeon Park, and Hye Young You, “How are Politicians Informed? Witnesses and Information Provision in Congress”

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, critics have questioned the extent to which members of Congress are interested in listening to the recommendations of witness experts on a range of policy issues.

According to a recent article in the American Political Science Review, there are many factors, most importantly partisan incentives, that influence whether representatives choose witnesses such as scientific experts to hear from when drafting policy in committee hearings. This may have implications for how effective Congress is becoming at making policy that targets the issues of the public.

How and when members of Congress choose to reach out to experts such as those from university, think tank, or government agencies, can determine how effective policy is in alleviating the social and economic issues. Pamela Ban, Ju Yeon Park and Hye Young You’s research on congressional committee hearings suggest that the policymaking process is much more dependent on partisan strategizing and performative signaling to various stakeholders. These stakeholders range from everyday voters to public opinion, and membership organizations like interest groups.

The finding that partisan incentives seem to drive Congress’s decisions of who to invite to provide information during the policy-making process becomes especially salient when considering where and from whom legislators get information as they address the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to determine which factors influence the extent to which members of Congress will solicit certain types of witnesses, and under which circumstances, the authors compile the most comprehensive dataset on congressional committee hearings to date. This dataset includes records of 74,082 hearings with 755,450 witnesses from 1960-2018. Using this dataset, they test three potential relationships—committee intent, congressional capacity, and interbranch relations—and their effects on when representatives invite expert witnesses to hearings. Under their committee intent hypothesis, they argue that when committees do not include a bill, they are more likely to seek out information from experts who can provide higher levels of analytical input, such as bureaucrats and witnesses from research organizations. However, when the committee hearings are held on a specific bill, the committee is more likely to be driven by partisan incentives and invite witnesses from groups who are most likely to be affected by the legislation or who can provide information on the bill’s political consequences.

For their second hypothesis, they predict that when there is divided government, or when the party of the President is different from the party in control of Congress, representatives are less likely to invite bureaucrats from government agencies and substitute them with external witnesses from think tanks or research organizations. Lastly, they reason that the elimination of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995, a congressional organization that provided guidance on research related activities to congressional committees, had a downstream effect on committees’ abilities to collaborate with the scientific community and receive research and information from witnesses. Due to this change, they expect that committees who relied heavily on this resource in navigating research experts will be less likely to invite research experts post-1995. This is due to the cut in congressional capacity that stemmed from a partisan based agenda by the Republican majority in Congress in 1995.

When authors ran their statistical analysis, they found evidence for all three initial propositions.

That is, they find committees are more likely to hear from analytical experts when there is not already a bill on the table. It is at this stage of the policy process that members of Congress are the most likely to seek analytical information. However, if a bill is already on the table, representatives seem to be driven more by partisan incentives, and less likely to seek out analytical information. In addition to this, they also found that congressional committees are less likely to invite bureaucrats from the executive branch when the President is of another party, and committees that relied on the OTA pre-1995 have not been able to invite the same level of experts from research organizations since.

The finding that partisan incentives seem to drive Congress’s decisions of who to invite to provide information during the policy-making process becomes especially salient when considering where and from whom legislators get information as they address the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems if Congress wants to improve the policy-making process, they need to start by first inviting and listening to the experts and translating this information into laws that may actually benefit its citizens.


  • Leann Mclaren is a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University where she studies American Politics, with a focus on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics. She is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship recipient (NSF-GRFP) and an APSA Minority Fellowship Program recipient. Leann’s dissertation explores how Black immigrant candidates navigate identity in political campaigns. Her other projects include mapping Black political behavior generally, specifically in the realms of social movements, and political participation. Leann holds a B.A. from the University of Connecticut and was an APSA Ralph Bunche Summer Institute Scholar.
  • Article details: BAN, PAMELA, JU YEON PARK, & HYE YOUNG YOU. 2022. “How Are Politicians Informed? Witnesses and Information Provision in Congress.” American Political Science Review, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055422000405
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.

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