Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) praised the panel of witnesses at a recent Transportation and Infrastructure Committee field hearing in his district, saying, “The best ideas come from individuals who see and breathe the issues not just from Washington.”
But it doesn’t hurt if those individuals are also campaign donors.
Among the panel of four private-sector witnesses at the hearing held at Oklahoma City Community College in February, three were donors to the freshman lawmaker’s campaign last cycle.
The fourth private-sector witness did not donate, although employees of his small business did. The two remaining witnesses were state government officials.
There are no rules prohibiting campaign donors from appearing before Congressional committees, and several government reform advocates acknowledged that it is not uncommon for a witness to have given funds to a Member.
But those observers said it is remarkable to have so many donors on a single panel.
“When you have these things that are supposed to be representative of the community and everyone is a campaign supporter, that does seem a little bit odd,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation.
“Most Americans do not give to political candidates,” Allison added, suggesting that an “inside-the-Beltway mentality” may at times affect witness selection.
“When you’re reaching out to people to be part of the process or part of a public event, you think of people you know who have given you money or who you want to solicit for money,” Allison said. “It’s kind of a self-perpetuating cycle.”
Asked about the prevalence of donors at that hearing, Lankford spokesman Will Allison (no relation to Bill Allison) defended the lawmaker’s witness selection process.
“Congressman Lankford consulted with local industry professionals and transportation officials for recommendations for potential witnesses,” Will Allison said in an e-mail. “Those who testified are among the most respected in the industry, representing businesses that have served Oklahoma for generations. They were selected for their knowledge of transportation policy and ability to effectively articulate the challenges facing Oklahoma’s surface transportation system.”
Transportation Committee spokesman Justin Harclerode noted the panel has held several field hearings this year to prepare for the next highway reauthorization bill and said the committee “relied more” on the Members in whose districts the hearings are held to select witnesses. Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) led the Oklahoma City field hearing.
“The main reason for holding those field hearings was to get away from the usual folks you see in a hearing that you might hold in Washington ... and get some more info from local officials and local stakeholders,” Harclerode said. “We really wanted a different focus ... a more local, hands-on perspective.”
Witnesses are asked to provide a résumé and to sign a document labeled a “truth in testimony” disclosure, stating whether they receive any federal grants.
Harclerode said Members are not given any guidance on selecting witnesses, apart from choosing individuals familiar with the topic of the hearing.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.