By Published: Nov. 11, 2019

Analysis by CU Boulder linguist and others finds U.S. Senate chairpersons can add bias to hearings 

To paraphrase George Orwell, when it comes to committee hearings in the U.S. Senate, all senators are equal, but some senators—specifically, committee chairpersons—appear to be more equal than others.

And that, conclude the authors of a new paper, “Turn-taking and the structural legitimization of bias: The case of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing by the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary,” undermines the notion that such hearings are about impartial fact-gathering. 

Raymond Chase

Chase Raymond. At the top of the page, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Sen. Orrin Hatch are visible on either side of Brett Kavanaugh's head. Getty Images.

“(A) committee chairperson allied with one party or another will be structurally afforded the ability to grant more floor time to their own party's perspectives,” write the authors of the paper, Chase Raymond, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Colorado Boulder; Marissa Caldwell, graduate assistant in the Department of English; Innwha Park, associate professor of teaching English as a second language, both of West Chester University; Lisa Mikesell, associate professor of communication at Rutgers University; and Nicholas Williams, postdoctoral researcher in the CU Boulder Department of Linguistics.

The researchers decided to examine the question after independently watching, then exchanging their impressions of, the Sept. 27, 2018, special Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, chaired by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and convened to question then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused him of sexual impropriety when they were teenagers.

“We all said, ‘Wow, Grassley is really talking a lot for a chair,’” Raymond says. “And we, as linguists, can turn those observations into empirical findings, rather than just saying he was talking too much.”

While committee members were held to a strict, five-minute time limit, as chairman, the researchers found that Grassley at times made use of “interstitial spaces” between questioners to insert partisan commentary or rebut comments made by Democratic senators, without allowing them to respond. 

“In many of these passes from one senator to the next, Chairman Grassley says ‘Thank you,’ and calls on the next senator,” says lead author Raymond. 

“But we also started to see how Grassley does other things in those moments, things we argue are partisan, putting forth the line for his party. … The issue is not that he is putting forth a Republican point of view … but rather than he is now no longer bound by the five-minute intervals everyone else is bound by.”

And in a process advertised as investigative, fair and unbiased, a chairperson’s use of the time between questions to insert partisan comments or questions tilts the playing field in his or her party’s favor.

“This is not to say Grassley is doing something illegal; he’s doing something any chair could do,” Raymond says. “It’s the system that allows for Grassley to do this sort of thing, and so this is a critique of that system.”

The authors argue that the chairman’s use of interstitial time makes a mockery of the hearing’s purported attempts at fairness through the use of time limits.

“Grassley's use of chairperson authority to freely rebut the perspectives offered during other senators' allotted time is structurally—and thereby demonstrably—at variance with the use of a temporal metric to ensure equal representation of both parties' views on the issue,” they write.

This is not to say Grassley is doing something illegal; he’s doing something any chair could do. ... It’s the system that allows for Grassley to do this sort of thing, and so this is a critique of that system.”

At one point, Grassley reads an extended statement described by the authors as “prepared,” to rebut the previous speaker, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island). When Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) requests the floor to respond, the chair hurriedly passes the floor to Rachel Mitchell, a special prosecutor to whom Republican senators yielded most of their questioning time.

“Through his own commentary, (Grassley) has granted additional floor time to one party's position and thereby implicitly negated the very reason for allegedly needing to move on directly to Miss Mitchell and not allow Senator Klobuchar to comment,” the authors write. 

Raymond emphasizes that the analysis, based on a single, contentious hearing, is not intended to be partisan and that chairpersons of either party are free, under current tradition and Senate rules, to inject their views between questioners. But if the chairperson is given free rein to inject his or her perspective and limit other members’ ability to respond, then the Senate should do away with the pretense that hearings are intended to gather information, Raymond says.

One obvious remedy, the authors suggest, would be to take hearings out of the hands of partisan chairpersons. 

“Since the chairperson's biased actions are structurally afforded, and not oriented to as ‘out of order’ or otherwise problematic, they become defensible—socially, politically and even legally—within the broader ideology of fairness that is at work here,” they write. “If avoidance of such biased actions is determined to be a necessary feature of a ‘fair’ hearing, one concrete policy suggestion would be to require that such hearings be chaired by an external, non-party-aligned individual.”

“The committee already brings in outside experts when they deem it necessary,” Raymond says, noting Republicans’ reliance upon Mitchell during the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. “So, having someone else chair doesn’t seem to be that strange an idea.”

If legislators don’t want to use neutral chairpersons, Raymond says, that’s fine. But they should make clear to the public that hearings are not intended for neutral fact-gathering.

“Call it something else. People at home (watching on television) are told it’s about fact-gathering, but facts are actually being suppressed,” Raymond says. “Senators already use the beginning of their time not to ask questions, but essentially make speeches. … That’s for the audience at home, it’s about positioning themselves or being seen to position themselves.”

Raymond acknowledges that when both sides of the aisle leverage the advantages of appointing committee chairs when their party is in the majority, such traditions may be hard to shift. When Party A is in power, Party B may complain; but when the tables are turned, Party B may see turnabout as fair play and exercise its authority in the same way.

But, Raymond says, “Two wrongs don’t make a right. At some point, one side or the other will have to give in and say, ‘We are going to move toward an egalitarian system, even though we could be the ones getting one over on you now.’”