There’s a major difference between hearing and listening. Many people hear music, for instance. Far fewer listen to it carefully. That, of course, goes for lots of other things, from hearing teachers or listening to them, to hearing your spouse or listening to him or her; we need not go there. All this helps, though, to point out the distinction when it comes to so-called "hearings" on Capitol Hill.
It’s not a coincidence that the staged, overly formalized and almost Kabuki-like rituals we watch, attend or participate in on the Hill are called "hearings," not "listenings." It is rare when members of Congress set them up for the purpose of listening to and actually absorbing information that can be used to formulate intelligent policy on the hearing’s topic. Rather, they are designed to elicit statements from contending parties about issues most of the members have already made up their minds about. Hearings allow lawmakers to pad the record to support their preconceived position or browbeat the "witness" for the benefit of reporters and the cameras.
I know I am being a little harsh here. It is not always that way, but after more than 35 years of attending, watching or participating as a witness in these hearings I can tell you that you won’t miss much if you don’t bother to play this particular game. It really has become stylized theater and rarely, although I admit it does happen, does a member of Congress walk away from a hearing having actually listened and learned something that he or she did not at least think they already knew.
The game is about to start again for the telecommunications industry as we have new (old) chairmen heading the relevant committees in the House and Senate. It’s not like these people, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) for instance, don’t know the issues. They do. Markey, for one, is very smart and well versed on many of the complexities surrounding the telecom industry. He also has already staked out his positions. So announcing that he will conduct hearings on all these issues is not really for his benefit, it’s for the public effect and potential use that can be made of the record developed from them. That "record," of course, will be used to justify whatever legislation is proposed.
It would be refreshing if this time around more members actually listened, rather than just using hearings as a means to preconceived ends.
A former FCC attorney and president of CATA, Steve is a columnist and consultant in the cable industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.