Hearings mean being ready to address issues or matters that may not be clear in justification materials, or that may get attention due to other factors. To ready agency officials, more justification materials are prepared by agency staff, mostly in the form of a question and its answer. Possible questions that may be asked at the hearing may also be provided prior to the hearing by friendly appropriations committee staff. Knowing in advance what will be asked helps the agency to prepare.
Questions at the hearing that will be asked may come from many sources - members and their staffs, or introduced as a favor to a constituent, or the agency itself may plant questions with friendly members. Answers come from the agency. Some of the questions (and answers) may be used in the course of the hearing, but in most cases the question and the response are inserted later, as part of the record of the hearing. The agency usually faces a long list of additional questions after the hearing. Answers are prepared for all of them, cleared through OMB, and submitted to the appropriations committees.
Questions and answers prepared by the agency by itself may not come up during the hearing, and so are not used in the proceedings. But the questions from Congress and the answers prepared by the agency are used even if they do not make it into the official record - the agency submits the responses to Congress and staff of the committees read them.
In the past, many Q&As were prepared for insertion into the record of the hearings as if the question and the response had taken place during the course of the hearing itself, but this practice has been reduced in recent years due to public outcry protesting the practice.
Congress transacts business by dialogue, debate, or hearings. Information is presented to Congress through hearings and the record of the hearings. A question from a member as part of a hearing and an answer from a witness is the traditional and preferred way of obtaining information and building a basis for action.
Exchanges between members of Congress and agency officials at hearings are an essential part of the process of persuading Congress or the agency to take specific actions or adopt or change specific policies. Everything is on the record, and can be looked up. However, time is limited at hearings. There is no time to ask and answer all questions, so Congress allows the introduction of additional materials in "question and answer" format, without the question ever having been asked in the course of hearings.
Preparation of witnesses for a hearing lends itself to the Q&A format because matters are most likely to come up as a result of a question.
Appropriations is the most powerful tool Congress has to get the attention of an agency and its operating officials, so the use of the hearings to obtain information or to establish a record for further action trough appropriations is very attractive to members of Congress. Things that cannot be achieved otherwise could be achieved through prohibitions or requirements inserted into appropriations law or the record of proceedings. One of the ways to start this process is to ask a question.
Agency staff attempts to foresee likely lines of questioning and prepare relevant Q&As. The agency also has to respond to questions submitted by members of Congress before the hearings and to questions that were not answered during the hearings (in which case they become "material for the record") or that are submitted by members for a response due after the hearing.
Responding to questions can become a significant workload. It is relatively easy to identify a large number of potential issues and problem areas that may come up in the course of a hearing, and preparing substantive responses to these questions occupies a good portion of an agency's attention during the time of appropriations hearings. Operating components and their key officials can become distracted in this period if there are many issues related to an agency's operations that elicit Congressional interest.
Peak activity is after submission of the budget request materials in late January-early February through the hearings in March-April.
Documents and Links
The Q&As that become part of the record of the hearings are published in the transcripts of the hearings.