Senate hearings are an important part of the work of the United States Senate. Both houses of Congress hold hearings in order to gather information, review the performance of government organizations and investigate possible wrongdoing. In addition, the Senate holds confirmation hearings to approve appointments made by the executive branch.
There are four main types of Senate hearings. Legislative hearings are hearings intended to gather information as part of the process of drafting legislation. The Senate, or the Senate committee responsible for the legislation, calls witnesses to provide testimony relating to the subject of the proposed legislation. This type of hearing serves one of Congress's most important tasks, that of proposing and passing legislation. The reports of Congressional legislative hearings often form the basis for subsequent legislation.
Oversight hearings are Senate hearings that examine the functioning of government activities. Although the executive branch is responsible for carrying out Congress's instructions, Congress retains the right and responsibility to oversee its work. This is part of the system of checks and balances that runs throughout the structure of the United States government. The procedure of an oversight hearing is similar to a legislative hearing, in that it involves the Senate, or a committee, calling witnesses to provide information on a particular subject.
Investigative hearings are similar in some ways to oversight hearings. In an investigative hearing, the Senate investigates misconduct, primarily by government officials but also in cases when it has determined that a situation requires some kind of legislative involvement. An example of this type of hearing is the Senate War Investigating Committee, formed in 1947 to investigate claims of corruption in wartime procurement. Some Senate investigative hearings result in prosecution, while others, like the War Investigating Committee, do not.
Legislative, oversight and investigative committees are common to both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Confirmation hearings, by contrast, occur only in the Senate. In these Senate hearings, the Senate determines whether or not to approve an individual appointed by the executive branch. The Senate exercises this right as part of its "advice and consent" role. Positions which require Senate confirmation hearings include Supreme Court justices, ambassadors and other senior government officials.
Another aspect of the "advice and consent" role of the Senate is its responsibility to ratify treaties. Senate hearings relating to treaties and similar government agreements are, like confirmation hearings, often routine. However, on occasion they can result in radical changes in government policy.