Thursday, April 15, 2010

Congressional Oversight

By Jeremy Borbon

Oversight is a loosely defined term that covers a wide variety of obligations and responsibilities of the United States Congress. Generally the term congressional oversight refers to the act of the congress looking over the executive branch as well as the monitoring and supervision of the implementation of public policies. Throughout its history congress has used many tools to pursue its oversight responsibilities, these includes special investigations, appropriations and legislative review. The origin of congressional oversight comes from the legislative branch of government’s implied powers in the United States constitution. Over the past half century the implied powers of the constitution have been compounded upon by public law with the passing of the legislative reorganization act of 1946. This bill provided congressional oversight with explicit recognition in the public domain. With this new found recognition the congress moved towards an era of increased interest in oversight, congress was encouraged to maintain a certain level of continuous watchfulness (James, 2002). With this in mind the idea of congressional oversight has proved to be an ever changing organism that has adapted from its constitutional origins to a living breathing being that is a constant concern in our government.
Congressional oversight is conducted in one of two manners. First, police patrol oversight is the constant supervision of agencies and bureaucracy. This type of oversight is a result of the past half century and the idea of continuous watchfulness among congress. Under this type of oversight congress pursues constant and regular surveillance over the executive branch and its agencies. This is similar the way police officers constantly patrol the streets to provide security. Though police patrol oversight would be preferable in most situations, fact of the matter this type of oversight is quite costly. It is quite expensive to continually maintain surveillance over something as large as the bureaucracy (Roberts, 2009).

The clip below is an example of Police patrol oversight. It is a brief clip of a hearing after the sub-committee of management integration and oversight of the House committee of Homeland Security during regularly conducted oversight discovers poor spending policies and a lack of internal controls in the department.

The second type is fire alarm oversight; this is oversight is generally conducted as a result of concern among the constituents or the media. With this type of congressional oversight congress puts in place ways for others to bring issues to their attention. This can happen through agency whistle blowing, constituent reporting, or media backlash. This, un like police patrol where the goal is to catch the issue before anything happens, is designed to deal with issues after it causes fire and some outside entity pulls the fire alarm to alert congress. Though this seems significantly inferior to the police patrol model to most individuals, to congress it had a greater deal of benefits. First it is significantly cheaper to just let issues be brought to their attention rather than seeking out issues before they occur. Second and more importantly this method of oversight allows individual congressmen to take credit with their constituents with regards to handling an issue that is brought to their attention. Looking good to their voters is a priority
From its inception the purposes of congressional oversight has been a means to check the powers of the executive branch. However in today’s government congressional oversight is a tool used to check the power of the government and the private sector. One of the largest responsibilities of congressional oversight is to monitor the effectiveness of and efficiency of governmental operations. This duty includes the monitoring of the federal bureaucracy to en sure that each individual program is working at its peak performance. The tool of oversight also allows the congress to prevent the encroachment of the executive branch on the legislative powers. This includes the investigation of administration, behaviors, and fraud. Finally the last check on the executive branch is to ensure that the public’s interests are represented in the executive branch, this includes the protection of individual civil liberties and rights. Other less demanding purposes’ of oversight include the review of agency processes, to encourage cooperation between branches of government, to investigate constituent and media complaints, and to study and evaluate federal activities (Oleszek, 2007). With all this in mind it is easy to see the reasoning behind the need for congressional oversight. Recently the concerns over the safety of vehicles manufactured by Toyota caused congress to hold special hearings regarding the situations that led to this concern.

In the following clip of a congressional hearing, a former administrator from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testifies in front of congress regarding the safety standards in auto manufacturing. This is an example of congress looking after the safety and interests of the public by using oversight on a bureaucratic agency.

Moving on to how congress conducts oversight, there are many options available for congress to supervise the bureaucracy and executive branch. These methods range from very formal congressional hearings to quite informal means of personal contact. One of the more common forms of congressional oversight takes place at the committee and sub-committee levels. The committee or sub-committee holds hearing in which they question the heads of agencies on their bureaucratic ways. These are generally used as a method of gaining information to report on the situations to others. These also include more publicized hearings such oversight held for Watergate or the Iran Contra affair. Less formal forms of congressional oversight are also used to monitor bureaucratic agencies. Such as personal contact, whether it is, in person, by telephone, or written correspondence with agency officials. Other useful tools include public relation campaigns and even just the threat of legislation against an agency.

The following clip is an example of the most popular tool for congressional oversight, the committee hearing.

All and all congressional oversight is a very important function of the legislature. Our founding fathers designed the constitution to provide the government with a system of checks and balances, and oversight is the Congress’s greatest form of control over the executive branch. This is a tool that allows the members of the legislature to police the government ad protect the citizens of the United States.

James, M. (2002). Congressional Oversight. Huntington: Nova Science Publishers.
Oleszek, W. J. (2007). Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process (Congressional Procedures & the Policy Process) (Congressional Procedures & the Policy Process) (7 ed.). Washington, D.C: CQ Press.
Roberts, J. M., Smith, S. S., & Vander, W. R. (2009). The American Congress (6th Revised edition ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.