Senate Moves to Written Q&A for Defense Hearings

Starting this week, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold hearings using only written questions and answers, while the new coronavirus keeps the panels from convening as usual on Capitol Hill.

“While the committee is committed to continuing congressional oversight and data collection necessary to drafting the National Defense Authorization Act, to protect the health of everyone involved, traditional hearings are not possible under current conditions,” the committee said in a March 25 release.

In a delayed process dubbed “paper hearings,” SASC will post the opening statements from Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) as well as all witness testimony. Committee members will submit their questions ahead of time, and the Pentagon will receive them at the time a hearing is scheduled. 

SASC will hold its first paper hearing March 26 to discuss the Army’s fiscal 2021 outlook. 

“The committee intends to post member questions and witnesses within one week of posting opening statements, though the committee may exercise discretion and flexibility to ensure the Department of Defense is able to fulfill mission-critical duties, especially those related to COVID-19 response and national security,” the release stated. 

Other meetings that were on the schedule, including hearings to discuss the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service’s latest recommendations, the findings of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, and aircraft carrier survivability, have been postponed.

In practice, paper hearings are similar to confirmation hearings, where the committee sends advance questions for a nominee and posts their answers online when they come in for a public vetting. But using written submissions alone allows witnesses to craft their answers more carefully rather than responding on the spot, which is more spontaneous and can provide more transparent and illuminating answers.

Senate lawmakers will resume questioning witnesses in person “when conditions allow,” the release said. SASC spokeswoman Marta Hernandez added that the committee wants to avoid a backlog of nominees for top Pentagon positions, such as a new Air Force Chief of Staff and the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, indicating those could move forward as planned.

SASC is still considering other methods of convening its members and mulling issues as it tackles the fiscal 2021 defense budget and policy authorization season. The House Armed Services Committee is exploring its own options but has not said whether it plans to take up paper hearings as well.

“At the direction of the Sergeant at Arms, access to House buildings is restricted to members, staff, and only visitors conducting official business,” HASC spokeswoman Monica Matoush said March 17. “Also impacting our upcoming hearing schedule is the availability of witnesses, who in some cases cannot travel to the D.C. region. We are monitoring the situation carefully and will continue to assess our posture during the district work period, to make sound decisions about our way forward.”