Nothing But The Truth: A Quick Primer On Testifying To Congress

There are legal ramifications to testifying — whether you take the oath or not.
Posted at 9:06 AM, Aug 30, 2017

There's been a lot of chatter about congressional testimony lately … but is all that chatter just a whole bunch of white noise? Well, not really.

A whole lot of hubbub surrounds speaking with Congress but beyond the din — how legally binding and consequential are those testimonies? 

Well, first of all, there are different components that up the ante of testimony, but let's focus on the setting and whether or not you take an oath. 

There are basically two pretty obvious types of settings for congressional testimonies: public and private. 

But the reasoning behind which one is chosen matters. A public testimony gets a whole lot of attention, especially if it involves a controversial topic or person or both. Public testimony is also about us: the American people. 

If it is something our lawmakers think matters to our lives, they will typically push for a public hearing. And let's face it, if there's a hearing it definitely matters to citizens and the media should probably be covering it. 

But there are legit reasons for a private testimony — other than just keeping reporters out of your business, which let's face it, is definitely a reason behind the choice sometimes. If someone is offered or asks for a testimony behind closed doors, they could be discussing classified information or worried that it will come up. 

That way Congress can ask whatever questions they want and not have to wait until they get behind closed doors to get all of their questions answered. 

Now to the oath. You've seen it. You've heard it, but how much does it actually matter? Well, legally speaking, with or without the oath, you can't lie to Congress. Sorry, not sorry. It's more symbolic than necessary to keep a witness honest. 

That's thanks to The False Statements Act. It makes it illegal to provide "materially false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or representation" during congressional testimony. 

But putting that hand up does raise the stakes. If you knowingly lie after taking the oath, not only do you break the False Statements Act, you can also be charged with perjury. With or without the oath, a lie to Congress can get you up to five years in prison.