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Congress-ese: Markups, Hearings, and Off-Shore Drilling

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
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August 28, 2008

Today we learn about: Markups vs. Hearings!

A hearing is an opportunity for members of a particular congressional committee to learn more about an issue. Sometimes, they are also seeking information about how to improve a certain piece of proposed legislation or input as they consider drafting legislation. Other times, they are conducting oversight of a government agency or exploring an issue about which they may introduce legislation in a future Congress. (Or, they might be covering their behinds when they’ve dropped an issue out of a piece of legislation and want to look like they still care about it — for example, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on employment discrimination against transgender people after the House dropped gender identity and expression from its Employment Non-Discrimination Act.) Hearings usually have a number of witnesses, often from the government and non-profits, as well as private citizens with personal experiences on the issue and experts (e.g. professors or medical personnel). Each witness will present a five-minute opening statement and then answer questions from the members of Congress present. Witnesses, as well as organizations and individuals who are not scheduled to testify, can submit longer statements to be considered by the committee if they are invited to do so. The ACLU often submits statements for the record, which can be found throughout our website. Usually, witnesses will leave the hearing with homework, questions for the record that Members ask in writing and expect answers to.

Mark-ups, on the other hand, are when a congressional committee will approve (or not) and amend (or not) a piece of legislation. At a mark-up, members have the opportunity to speak about and debate the legislation and to offer amendments, which will be debated and subsequently voted up or down. (At the moment, just about every bill to come through any committee seems to be subject to Republican amendments about off-shore drilling.) Usually, amendments have to be germane — that is, related to the bill being marked up — in order to pass (but that doesn’t seem to stop the onslaught of off-shore drilling amendments, and a ruling that an amendment is non-germane can generally be set aside by a majority vote). After all of the amendments are considered by the committee, the committee will vote on whether or not to send the bill to the full House or Senate for consideration. A mark-up is often not the only opportunity for amendments to be introduced. Assuming the bill passes out of the committee, members may be able to propose and debate amendments when the bill is considered by on the House or Senate floor, unless, of course, the bill comes up on suspension (which we’ll define next week).

Tomorrow, Chris Ford will explain substitutes (bills, not teachers).