Lessons from Testifying Before Congress

William Phelan | 1/21/2019
Small Business, Economy, FinTech

All eyes were on Mark Zuckerberg as he testified before Congress.

As I watched, I was reminded of my own experiences testifying before Congress. I have had the honor of testifying twice as an expert on the credit gap that exists in the U.S. for private companies and has serious consequences for our economy.

Here’s what I learned from my Congressional testimony:

  1. Understanding the objectives and needs of the people in the room is critical
  2. Preparation, preparation, preparation

I first testified in February 2011 at the height of the Great Recession. The House Committee on Small Business sought an expert to discuss how Main Street could secure access to capital. A congressional aide had seen me on TV a few weeks earlier speaking on this important topic.

The chairs of the committee were Sam Graves (R-MO) and Nydia Velazquez (D-NY). Together, they were looking for ideas on how to jumpstart the economy. Each congressperson was seeking to understand the roadblocks holding back Main Street businesses so that they could make smart, informed policy decisions. Meeting the other panelists was a great opportunity. One woman who stood out to me was a CPA who ran a bakery in Tennessee. It was 2011, and she said she could not navigate the tax code, despite being a CPA. She had to spend money to hire others to help her with it, when she could be spending the time and money expanding her business.

When you testify, you have just five minutes to make an opening statement. As the expert witness, my role was to provide an update on financial conditions of private companies and domain expertise on credit access. Keep your message simple, succinct and tight.

I testified before Congress a second time in October 2017 – this time on the relationship between FinTech and small business. Just as before, I had five minutes to nail my opening statement and then take questions from all directions. While the credit markets had healed to some extent for private companies, we still found the lending from banks 28% lower in 2016 than in 2008. After opening statements, members of Congress ask follow up questions. For example, I received a very pointed question from a Congressman who wanted a certain issue addressed regarding an association of which I’m a member. You have to do your homework and be ready to receive more homework from the session.

What I did learn, however, is that no matter what their aisle of Congress, the representatives were dedicated to figuring out ways to help the economy and, specifically, help small businesses get back on track. Providing objective, fact based answers remains the best counsel an expert witness can provide during testimony.

Keeping things simple is also key. Once representatives leave a session, they will head right into the next hearing and the next topic. They leave the finance committee and go to intell or judiciary so distill things down into bite-sized pieces that can translate into policies.

While I found testifying to be a challenge, I also found it rewarding. The biggest reward was being able to provide impactful ideas that would inform policies such as fixing the credit gap. The opportunity to encourage policymakers to incorporate our ideas regarding the credit gap solution, potentially making life easier for a bunch of folks in the country—that was fantastic. I was so impressed with their focus on their constituents. These were hard-working representatives of their districts who are determined to get the right answers and help people.

Another highlight was having the chance to talk with members of our Congress as parents. We talked about our kids and where they were going to college and how proud we are of them.

Of course, the final highlight was being done and heading back home to Chicago.