Thursday, April 15, 2010

Today, Congress’s monitoring role is more important than ever before. Two important functions of legislative oversight are to promote accountability in government and to raise and ask the tough questions of public officials. They do this in order to help them fix mistakes and most importantly prevent what seem to be good decisions from going bad.

Democrats and Republicans differ in their views of government such that many Democrats have an affirmative view of government and many Republicans advocate for a smaller form of government. The reality today suggests that although this disagreement on the size and scope of government remains a prominent issue, it is more important to consider how it is our government can be efficient and cost effective in the midst of generating necessary policies that address the many challenges of our world today.

Congressional Oversight is when the House and Senate continually review how effectively the executive branch is carrying out congressional mandates. This can be known as “supervision, watchfulness, or review of executive actions and activities.” (Oleszek, 2007, p.289) This is often carried out by the committee structures of the House and Senate. Oversight is so important because the revision and supervision of the executive activities allow congress to find and address problem areas. Finding these problem areas then allow them to make the necessary improvements or changes to create an effective process.

One Senator said “I believe that oversight is one of Congress’s most important constitutional responsibilities. We must do more than write laws and decide policies. It is also our responsibility to perform the oversight necessary to insure that the administration enforces those laws as congress intended.” (Oleszek, 2007, p. 289)

Congressional oversight is important for more reasons than one. Oversight gives the public a view on important issues; this gives the American people the opportunity to have an opinion on what the executive branch is doing, and how they are going about it. It also allows them the opportunity to see what officeholders are actually doing, and if they are performing their jobs how they should be. I think that too often the American public is unaware of what the government is actually doing, and any help that Congress can give to the American public to make them more aware and interested in to what our government and its office holders are actually doing, will cause the United States to be more interest and actively involved, which will furthermore lead to a more united and strong America.

This video is an example of how reporting to the oversight committee of Congress allows them to be informed on what is going on in order to make sure things are going correctly and inform the public.

This idea of making the American public more informed and involved in what the government is actually doing is not a new topic. It is something that has been an important initiative of the past and I think it remains to be important today. In Woodrow Wilson’s classic 1885 study of the Legislative branch he said that the “informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function.” He also added; “Unless Congress have and use every means of acquainting itself with the acts and dispositions of the administrative agents of the government, the country must be helpless to learn of how it is being served; and unless Congress both scrutinize these things and sift them by every form of discussion, the country must remain in embarrassing, crippling ignorance of the very affairs which it is most important it should understand and direct.”

Although this is a little on the lengthy side of a quote, I believe that Wilson hit the point on the nail. If congress does not check the activities of the Executive branch to the best of their abilities, and provide the public with the necessary information to know what is going on, who will? I think that this displays yet again how important congressional oversight truly is.

Despite the evolving nature of our government, and the changing identity of politics throughout history, oversight has been an important function of the legislative branch since our nation’s beginning. Some tactics of oversight include: impeachment, investigation, congress’s power of the purse, and its authority to pass laws that create programs and agencies.

There are several laws that have been established in order to secure the oversight function of Congress. “Congress formalized its legislative oversight function in the Legislative Re-organization act of 1946. This act required congressional committees to exercise “continuous watchfulness” of the agencies under their jurisdictions and implicitly divided oversight functions into three areas.” (Oleszek, 2007, p.290)

These areas in short were:
1. Authorizing committees were required to review federal programs and agencies and to propose legislations to fix any problems that were discovered.
2. Appropriations Committees of each chamber were assigned Fiscal Oversight in order to scrutinize agency spending.
3. Investigative responsibility was assigned in order to seek our inefficiency, waste, and corruption in the federal government.

These three areas of oversight are overlapping and intended to meet the overall purpose of oversight. This overall goal is to “clarity statutory intent, evaluate program administration and performance, eliminate waste, fraud, abuse, and red tape, review the usefulness of programs, ensure that programs are cost-effective and economical, and correct executive abuses of authority.” In my personal opinion, the details of the goal of oversight are what make me feel confident in trusting our government. I feel that oversight is something that makes Congress stand out from the other branches of government. Oversight is essentially the “check” on the executive branch that balances everything out. As a basic member of the American population I may have an opinion on what the government is doing, but it is the oversight of the government that makes me aware in order to have that opinion, and it is the congress that then takes action to make sure what they are doing is best for us, the American Citizens and our Country as our whole.

During the 1970s, both houses of congress changed their rules in order to add more oversight authority to their standing committees. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 used more explicit language to describe the oversight duties of the committees and required panels of the House and Senate to issue reports on their oversight activities.

This was further carried out in 1995 when the House adopted a new rule requiring all standing committees to prepare a “comprehensive oversight plan” by February 15th of the first session of each Congress. The objective of this was to “ensure that committees make a more concerted, coordinated and conscientious effort to develop meaningful oversight plans at the beginning of each Congress and to follow through on their implementation, with a view to examining the full range of laws under their jurisdiction over a period of five Congresses.” (Oleszek, 2007, p. 293)

The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 was enacted to promote more cost-effective federal spending by requiring agencies to set strategic goals and to prepare annual plans and reports to be submitted to Congress and the president. One of the fundamental purposes of this act was to hold agencies accountable for their ability to implement these plans and achieve their expressed goals.

The Congressional Review Act of 1996 enables Congress to review and disapprove agency rules and regulations. This act gives Congress sixty legislative days to exercise a regulatory veto power. The one problem with this act although is that since it has been put in effect it has only been used once.

In 2006, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, also known as the “Google your government” law was signed by President Bush. This act required the Office of Management and Budget to provide a database of federal grant and contracts. This act was important because it had the potential to overflow the “watchdog” function of congress to interested citizens. Making them more knowledgeable about what the government is doing, and holding the government more accountable to their economic decisions.

Now that you have some background information on Oversight it is important to consider the different ways that Congress performs oversight. In order to do so, Congress can choose from several different techniques of Oversight to hold agencies accountable; this is because if one technique does not work, they can choose a different option or even a combination of options in order to get the job done.

Oversight varies from committee to committee. One thing that is for sure although is the large role that the press and media also serve in investigating and reporting on government affairs. Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stated “In the absence of governmental checks and balances present in other areas of national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the area of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry…Without an informed and free press; there cannot be an enlightened people.” Although, I slightly disagree with this statement because I think that it dismisses the high importance of investigating and informing that the Congress carries out, I think that Stewart is correct in highlighting how important the media, and what the media chooses to report on is in informing the public.

This video is of the investigations of Enron, it displays the ability and importance of oversight of congress to Investigate corruptions that are occuring.

The first technique that I am going to discuss is hearings and investigations. The traditional method of exercising congressional oversight is through committee hearings and investigations into executive branch operations. It is important that legislators know if federal programs are functioning correctly. It is also important that they are aware of the amount, or lack of, public support for governmental programs. With this information they can then decide if there are any areas that need to be mended, and if so what can be done. Although too many investigations can clog the flow of governmental processes, this tool does provide the Congress with the ability to fix improper legislation and inform the public of what the government is doing.

Another technique that is used to perform oversight is a legislative veto. In 1932, Congress included in their statutes the reserved right to Congress to approve or disapprove executive actions. A legislative veto allows one or both chambers to veto certain executive activities by majority vote. In addition to legislative veto, Congress chooses to sometimes grand committees the authority to approve or disapprove executive actions as well, known as a committee veto.

The last technique that I am going to describe is Impeachment. This is essentially the “ultimate check on the executive and judicial branch, known as the removal power.” Even more importantly this removal power is exclusive to Congress. Article II, Section 4, of the Constitution states: “The President, Vice President, and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on Impeach for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The House has the authority to impeach an official by majority vote. The House trial managers then prosecute the case before the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required.

This video speaks of the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton.

In the history of the US, the House has impeached seventeen people; two presidents, one Supreme Court Justice, one senator, one cabinet officer and twelve deferral Judges, of those the Senate convicted 7 judges who were removed from office. In December of 1998, President Clinton was the first elected president to be impeached by the House, despite the Senate voting acquittal on the charges two months later. (In 1868 Andrew Johnson was impeached but he was not elected)

There are obviously several more techniques of oversight, more areas of it to discuss, and as with any part of the governmental process, there are sites of controversy that continue today. The important thing I want to point out although is the impact that Congress has through oversight and the positive nature that it offers to the government as a whole and to the people of the United States. Although there is even some dispute within congress as to different aspects of oversight, it is inevitably up to Congress to decide how it can best carry out its function of oversight. This will much depend on “the context of the times, the willingness of lawmakers to watch and analyze executive branch activities, and Congress’s relationship with the executive branch.” Either way congress’s oversight responsibility is fundamental to ensure that “executive policies reflect the values of the American people, anticipate long-range trends, and meet the challenges of a changed world.” (Oleszek, 2007, p.312).