It may seem like inside baseball, but the order in which witnesses appear at a Congressional oversight hearing can be extremely important. It appears that several committee chairmen including Darrell Issa (House Oversight and Government Reform Committee) have learned to make hearings more challenging for agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In its story, the Politico (3/8/2011) also noted that the Natural Resources Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee are acting similarly on occasion.
EPA wants its staff to appear on only a first panel of government witnesses only. This way the government witnesses can say what they want and then leave the hearing before things get rough.
By telling the government witnesses they will appear on later panels they then are required to listen to the testimony of members of the regulated public who may not like their policies and may have pointed criticisms. Issa put it this way in a letter to the EPA (as quoted in the Politico):
In light of the troubles facing our nation, it is disturbing that EPAs highest priority is to secure assurances that the witnesses will not have to engage with the regulated community and the order in which the agency witnesses will appear, Issa wrote. Moreover, EPAs disdain for having to sit through and listen to or respond to the concerns of individuals affected by EPA regulation is shameful.
I completely agree with Issa. It is important to make the government witnesses follow other witnesses because then they can be compelled to respond to points raised. Typically, the government witnesses would have left the hearing by the time private citizen complaints were heard.
Another variant of this might be to have two hearings: a Part A and Part B. The regulated community would testify in the first hearing and a transcript or tape would be given to the agency witness. The agency staffers would testify at a later date in a Part B hearing and could be cross-examined with the earlier testimony. Unfortunately, the Part A witnesses probably would not attend the second hearing. Just an idea another way to try skin this cat. Also, this might make logistically harder for the congressional staff who would have to put together two hearings rather than one.