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March 14, 2008

Undoubtedly, the daily grind of congressional hearings passes by most Americans unremarked and probably unseen. Only the most high-profile will make the evening news. But they are the very stuff of government.

BILL MOYERS JOURNAL looks back at a years-worth of hearings held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the investigative arm of the House, and speaks with the Committee Chair, Representative Henry Waxman, about the Committee's role in the government:

"It's almost like having a policeman on the beat. If no one thinks they're being watched and being held accountable, they think they can get away with anything."

THE JOURNAL highlights just a few of the hundreds of hearings Congress holds each year. Hearings are an important, flexible tool for the legislative branch. They can be used to educate the legislators, by calling up experts or opening the hearing to public, or to draw attention to an issue. Or, in the case of the House Oversight Committee, to investigate other branches of government. Hearings can lead to reports, bills, or even additional hearings.

Though hearings and their records are mostly public information, few people have had practical access to them. Attending hearings in Washington, D.C. is difficult for the average American, and the traditional process to obtain transcripts is obscure and cumbersome.

But the Internet may change that. The government has been slow to capitalize on the Internet's potential to help disseminate information, but a growing online community, led by a few organizations, has stepped in to help sort through and organize the affairs of state and make them accessible from anywhere.

And if you don't want to wait for BILL MOYERS JOURNAL's next recap of hearings, or want to start your own Armchair Oversight Committee, there are many sites that will be helpful.

Getting transcripts

LOUIS (Library Of Unified Information Sources), a project of the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, is a tool for getting transcripts and other government documents. It draws from seven government databases, greatly simplifying searches. It still takes two months to two years for hearing transcripts to make it into the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD, but occasionally a committee will have the transcript on their Web site.

Watching/listening to hearings

As of now, it is far easier to follow hearings in the Senate than the House. A great resource for following Senate hearings is Openhearings.org, a simple Web site where you can browse upcoming hearings by committee or date and read short summaries of what they intend to discover. You can even download hearing schedules to your calendar or set up RSS alerts so you are sure not to miss them. This is important, because the audio is not archived online yet.

The House, unfortunately, is not so simple. Audio of hearings — if available — is on each individual committee's website, making it far more difficult to browse. Capitolhearings.org does have a list of links to each House Committee's Web site, but that's about as good as it gets. It is available here: (House Committees).

To see video of hearings, visit C-SPAN.org the day of the hearing (C-SPAN publishes its schedule daily, not before) and click on the schedule link. C-SPAN has several webstreams going at any time and is a great resource for watching the workings of government. Unfortunately, it doesn't save the videos online, so you cannot access them after the fact.

Government Secrecy

Several of the hearings profiled in the JOURNAL involve attempts to open government documents to scrutiny. Ordinary people may not have the subpoena powers of Congress, but they do have the Freedom of Information Act, which allows them to request documents from their government. In recent years, alterations to the Presidential Records Act have aroused the attention of both oversight committees and watchdog groups. Governmentdocs.org is creating a centralized, searchable database of documents gathered from FOIA suits.

Published on March 14, 2008.

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References and Reading:

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
The Committee's Web site documents all investigations from shortfalls at the Food and Drug Administration to Iraq funding follow-ups.

Senate Committees Home
Each committe has its own Web site — some include simple lists of hearing dates — others provide extensive archives.

C-SPAN Capitol Spotlight
C-SPAN's Spotlight site offers highlights of daily action on the Hill, a weekly update of "Bills to Watch" as well as tools to contact every legislator and committee.

Open House Project
In January 2007, the Sunlight Foundation launched the Open House Project, a collaborative effort by government and legislative information experts, congressional staff, non-profit organizers and bloggers to study how the House of Representatives currently integrates the Internet into its operations, and to suggest attainable reforms to promote public access to its work and members. John Wonderlich, program director for the Sunlight Foundation, leads the project. See also: Sunlight Foundation Useful Web Sites

The Hatch Act
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