Yes, Senate Hearings Are About Grandstanding

From a new paper by Wesleyan’s Logan Dancey:

Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings offer senators a public opportunity to exercise their “advice and consent” privilege and scrutinize presidential nominees. In this article, we examine the purpose and functioning of confirmation hearings for federal district court nominees, which make up the majority of presidential selections to federal courts. Using transcripts from all hearings between 1993 and 2008, we find the characteristics of individual nominees have little effect on the types of questions senators pose. Instead, larger institutional and political factors—such as Senate composition, party of the president, and proximity to a presidential election—are much better predictors of how senators use their opportunity to scrutinize nominees. The results indicate senators use hearings to engage in partisan and ideological position taking rather than to ascertain the qualifications of district court nominees.

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about reforming senate procedures, and while that’s certainly a good thing, the focus has generally been limited to a small number of issues like filibusters and holds. Meanwhile, it seems like a large chunk of legislative sessions contribute nothing toward improving the decision-making and policies of the government. Clearly, large changes to Congressional procedure will always be pipe dream, but when people talk about procedural changes it would be helpful to ask the question I often say we should ask when we talk about our school system: How would we do this if we were building it from scratch?

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