Broken Oversight

Tuesday, March 9, 2004
As charges and counter-charges fly on whether the White House was justified in ordering the invasion of Iraq based on our pre-war intelligence, a simple question has gone missing. How well, we should be asking, did the Congress do its job during the months leading up to the war? 

You can find plenty of critics saying the White House and the intelligence community may have misled the American people about weapons of mass destruction, about Saddam Hussein's ties to Al Qaeda, and about our country's readiness to rebuild Iraq after the war. But there was one group of people who had a special responsibility not to be misled: Congress. Surely, the first exercise of the President's doctrine of pre-emptive war deserved some searching exploration and independent judgment before it took place. Instead, it generally met passive acceptance- an attitude that many members of Congress, whichever their party, must surely regret at the moment. Yet the truth is, the problem goes beyond this single instance of rallying around the commander in chief. The deeper, more longstanding problem is that Congress has lost sight of the importance of traditional oversight. 

Ordinary Americans aren't the only ones who think of members of Congress primarily as legislators. So do those who spend their days on Capitol Hill. Legislating and tending to constituents, after all, are far more likely to garner attention and votes than is delving into the minutiae of executive-branch activity. Yet ever since 1792, when it launched an inquiry into government conduct of the wars against the Indians, Congress has played a crucial role in checking the abuse of executive powers. It did this in the Teapot Dome scandal of 1923, and again in the cases of Watergate and Iran-Contra. 

It is often tedious, technical, unglamorous work. Congressional attention to oversight ebbs and flows over the years. But at its best it means looking into the nooks and crannies of the government's everyday activities, gauging the impact of federal programs or the effect of their absence, judging whether the expectations that lay behind legislation are being met by executive agencies, and probing for corruption or malfeasance. 

Regular and systematic oversight throws light on the activities of government. It can protect the country from an imperial presidency, from bureaucratic arrogance, and from the blind pursuit of rules and regulations that, seen in perspective, do more harm than good. It exposes and prevents misconduct, and is one of the few ways of ensuring that the American people have some influence on an administration after they vote it into office. Strong congressional oversight, in other words, is essential to the functioning of our democracy. It has always seemed to me that members of Congress owe their allegiance not just to their constituents and their party, but to the institution itself. This means taking seriously their constitutionally mandated role as a branch of government equal in power to the executive, and serving both as partners and as critics of the White House. 

In recent times, though, there's been too little evidence of this. Certainly some good oversight does take place in committees on both the House and Senate side. But much of it these days is designed to score political points. As the National Journal noted recently, the House committee with the most sweeping oversight responsibilities issued no subpoenas to the executive branch during the two years that it was run by Democrats and President Clinton was in the White House. From 1995 to 2000, though, after the GOP took over the House, the committee got busy, handing out well over 1,000 subpoenas to Clinton administration officials. Yet most of the effort was to probe Bill and Hillary Clinton's financial affairs rather than to look carefully at how our government was working. 

Some basic changes in Congress in recent years have weakened oversight. As power has become concentrated in the hands of the leadership, for instance, the so-called authorizing committees- the committees whose responsibility it is to delve into the activities of specific executive-branch agencies- have met less frequently and exercised far less influence over the budgets of their agencies. Because Congress has been choosing to fund the federal government either through so-called "continuing resolutions" or massive appropriations bills, the routine reauthorization process has disappeared; it was during reauthorization hearings that some of the most effective probes of how federal agencies were behaving took place. 

There is a cost to all this, and it's not just in lost congressional power. Failing to ask tough questions of the White House and the executive branch allows bureaucrats to become smug and policy makers to sidestep examination of their positions. Not only does the nation benefit from a careful, thorough and fair congressional probing of the President's policies and assumptions, so does the President. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)