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

Oversight in the legislative process is implied, but how effective is it?  {mosimage}

Oversight is a congressional obligation, but one frequently overlooked in legislators' focus on reelection. "They don't spend nearly enough time overseeing government agencies," laments Lodi, CA mayor John Beckman. "They think that because we call them 'legislator,' their job is to create more laws. They're failing in their primary responsibilities, which are to oversee the budget and various government agencies."

But are they? Just as congresspersons are often more focused on making new laws than running the national bureaucracy, so are citizens less inclined to follow the more tedious aspects of their representatives' job. Most people have no idea how much time Congress actually spends on oversight versus actual legislation, let alone how often Congressional oversight occurs. Then there's the issue of efficacy.

"The power to make laws implied the power to see whether they were faithfully executed," wrote Arthur J. Schlesinger Jr. in Congress Investigates: A Documented History.

The oversight function in the lawmaking process has been around for more than 250 years, said Charles Johnson, former parliamentarian of the U.S. House of Representatives. "Since there have been committees, there's always been an oversight function." To that end, oversight is about management, the crucial element in any successful organization­—political or otherwise.

Heads or tails

Oversight and legislation are two sides of the same coin, explains Congressman Tom Davis, chairman of the Committee on Government Reform in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Within the Government Reform Committee, there is a legislative staff and an oversight staff, and the two generally work together," he says.

But Johnson says the breakdown of time between oversight and legislation is indeed an issue. "It's a commonly acknowledged modern problem, that given the requirement that members conduct hearings—not just staff—and the reality that the House is really only in [session] two days a week, members are not inclined to sit at the seat of government five days a week participating in direct hearings.

"That doesn't mean they're totally detached from it," Johnson continues. "But you can combine that whole aspect of time, the inclination to be elsewhere—whether it's fundraising or trying to get re-elected in their districts—with the notion that staff are often delegated responsibility to do at least preliminary fact-finding, along with the reality that the political incentive to conduct oversight may not be the same with the executive branch of the same majority."

Davis, however, said the two functions go hand in hand. "It's not a zero-sum game where if we peruse one function, the other one remains dormant," he says. "If oversight determines that there's a need for change in legislation, we'll introduce legislation. Likewise, we'll use oversight to examine the laws passed to gauge their effectiveness."

Digging deeper

The oversight function takes a variety of forms, Johnson explains. "Oversight can be for legislative reasons, investigative, confirmation—there are a number of different oversight responsibilities, as spelled out in the rules of the House."

It occurs through a wide variety of channels, which include formal committee hearings or investigations, and informal contacts with executive officials, as well as staff studies of agency reviews and document requests or subpoenas.

"The Government Reform Committee is the primary investigative and oversight committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, which gives us broad leeway into what we investigate," he said. "Our specific duties are as follows: ensure executive compliance with legislative intent; improve
the efficiency, effectiveness and economy of government operations; evaluate program performance; and root out waste, fraud and abuse."

Bringing up the rear: Oversight

Lawmakers, and even Congress as an institution, have three main jobs: lawmaking, representation and oversight.

In terms of a hierarchal structure, lawmaking might come first and representation may be second in line, due to the electoral connection and serving the people who sent those lawmakers to Washington, D.C.

This, in theory, puts the oversight function in last place. Some would argue that it has always occupied the bottom rung. The only exceptions to the rule would include issues that rivet the public or excite Congress, such as cases of domestic spying, interagency scandals or the especially disastrous breakdown of a specific institution.

A prime example of active oversight occurring because an issue captured both the public and the media is the Federal Emergency Management Agency's timely response to Hurricane Katrina, or lack thereof. More current, the U.S. Committee on Finance is looking into the $39 million charged to government credit cards for disaster relief items in Katrina's wake.

Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley is checking into the charges to make sure no one used federal credit cards for holiday shopping. The initial congressional audits, however, will instead focus on the lack of discounted rates for certain items purchased, such as clothing and toiletries. The main concern is that retail purchases were made as opposed to using government contracts that ensure cheaper prices. The first report of the investigation is due out in early 2006.

Fresh air

Congress is playing an aggressive oversight role in the possible credit card abuse situation. But the majority of oversight goes on quietly and behind the scenes, according to some, who also say that it's as tedious as it is time-consuming.

For others, however, this is not necessarily the case.

Congressman Davis said the Committee on Government Reform, including its subcommittees, has held hundreds of public hearings under his chairmanship. "More than any other House Committee," he notes. "The topics are too numerous to recite, but a sampling demonstrates our commitment to fulfilling our constitutional responsibility: national drug control strategy; the costs, benefits and impact of federal regulations; steroid-use in professional sports; FBI misconduct in New England; pandemic flu; surveillance of mad cow disease; information sharing at the Department of Homeland Security; financial management at the Defense Department; new visa and passport requirements; testing and training of airline security screeners. And on and on and on."

Hearings on these issues and others help ensure that the government is carrying out the will of both Congress and the people effectively and efficiently, Davis adds.

"Sunlight is often the best disinfectant, and having a public discussion of an issue, with witnesses testifying under oath, is a very effective tool for our committee to streamline the federal government; to root out waste, fraud and abuse in programs; and to protect the rights and interests of the American taxpayer."

In sum, Congress doesn't spend as much time as they should on oversight, but they spend more than the electorate knows. Then again, the electorate doesn't really know how much time their representatives should be spending on managing what has been legislated—just that the amount of legislation continues to increase.

About Jessica B. Jones

Jessica B. Jones is the managing editor of Government Technology magazine, a national trade publication focusing on solutions for state and local government in the information age.