Policy Today magazine cover showing three soldiers on patrol
February 1, 2006

PT talks to Christopher Shays, U.S. Congressman from Connecticut and vice-chair of the House Government Reform Committee, about congressional oversight and checks and balances in today's government.

PT: Could you give us a breakdown of time spent doing oversight vs. working on legislation?

Shays: In general, I would estimate that we spend more time legislating than conducting oversight. This is a huge problem that has allowed our government to act in a less transparent and less efficient way than if Congress were watching more closely.

Currently, I serve as vice-chair of the Government Reform Committee, which is devoted entirely to oversight work. We have cast light on many important issues and, through our singular focus on oversight, I believe we have helped balance the power in our government. For example, my subcommittee led the investigation into the causes of Gulf War syndrome. The subcommittee successfully challenged the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs, ensuring that sick Gulf War veterans were diagnosed more accurately, treated more effectively and compensated more fairly for service-connected disabilities.

PT: How much practical effect does committee oversight actually have? That is to say, what kinds of sanctions are there for agencies not running up to par? Can the committee set new priorities for that institution?

Shays: Oversight shines light on ineffective processes, procedures and practices in government. In some cases, the congressional and media attention itself is enough to initiate change. In other cases, it requires legislative change to redirect an agency's work. However, the process of determining what legislative change is necessary begins with good oversight.

For example, last year I held a hearing about how the Department of Defense buys too much and then cannot, with any accuracy, track where the excess property is or who might need it. When our Subcommittee identified this problem and investigated it, with GAO's support, the Defense Department agreed to re-examine its procedures for disposing of excess property. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Defense agencies assessed their cataloguing of returned gear. The services, as well as the Defense Logistics Agency, assessed training of their workers in gear documentation, as well as their systems for tracking data on what's been turned in.

PT: Is less attention paid to oversight than legisl-ation purely because adequate agency over-sight isn't as interesting?

Shays: Oversight is a critical part of checks and balances. When the Executive Branch has more power, our system demands more congressional oversight. Unfortu-nately, I think this Congress has not taken that responsibility seriously and has acted as more of a Parliament than a Congress. I think it is a disservice to the Administration not to conduct aggressive oversight, despite the fact that one party controls both branches.

PT: How dynamic is the process itself? Are there structural difficulties that need to be overcome?

Shays: Oversight, if done correctly and aggressively, is a dynamic and effective process. It can—and has—uncovered some significant challenges within our government. My concern is not as much with the structural details of oversight, but simply that aggressive oversight is not being done.

PT: Congressman, thank you for your time.

Christopher Shays represents Connecticut's 4th Congressional District. He is chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, and vice-chair of the Government Reform Committee.