By Alicia Kubas
Government Publications and Regional Depository Librarian

Alicia Kubas
Alicia Kubas

Last week, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the European Parliament — just a little over a month following his testimony before Congress at the joint hearing of the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

The hearing drew a lot of attention and, ironically, we heard via social media about some seemingly out-of-touch questions posed by some less than tech-savvy senators. But, of course, this is why a hearing is needed in the first place.

For students or the general public, what follows is a primer on Congressional hearings. 

What is a hearing?

Hearings are a vital part of the Congressional process as they serve to bring in witnesses and experts on current topics so Congress can learn more about topics as they create and revise laws and policy for the American people.

But why Facebook?

The Facebook hearing was a great example of the government potentially needing to step in to protect the interests of the American people. There’s no one better to speak to these issues than the creator of Facebook himself. Other recently hearings include self-driving cars, the opioid crisis, and forensic science. You can find official video coverage of the Facebook hearing on the Committee on the Judiciary website as well as a transcript of Zuckerberg’s testimony.

Can I use hearings for my research?

Yes! Hearings are a window into the workings and interests of Congress that can also be a great resource for exploring a current topic in a classroom or research project.

Hearings can be accessed in a variety of places including congress.gov and govinfo.gov or on individual House and Senate Committee websites. It takes awhile for a complete hearing including the question-and-answer portion between the committee members and witness(es) to be published, so you may need to view the recorded video to access the complete content of hearings until the published version is available on congress.gov or govinfo.gov.

What are some other famous hearings?

Hearings have played a great part in turning the tides of politics and policy throughout the history of the United States.

  • In the early 1970s, the Senate Watergate Committee hearings investigating the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.
  • In the late 1990s, the House Judiciary Committee hearings related to Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern among other actions and his subsequent denial of such charges were televised across the country.
  • More recently in 2017, the James Comey hearing about the FBI’s investigation into the President’s ties to Russia made headlines as the Senate Intelligence Committee digs into Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

Where can I find hearings from the past?

Hearings from before the 1990s are harder to find freely available online, but there are many digitized in the HathiTrust Digital Library and the Catalog of U.S. Government Publications has access to hearings back to 1976. The Libraries also pays for access to historical Congressional publications like hearings back to the 1st Congress in 1789 through a database called ProQuest Congressional.

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