Oversight At Last

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Wednesday, June 16, 2004
As difficult as it has been in recent weeks to watch the testimony coming out of the Senate Armed Services Committee's hearings into the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, one thing about these sessions should give us all heart: the fact that they're taking place at all. Chairman John Warner of Virginia, despite the outspoken distaste of his counterparts on the House side and the less vocal hesitation of some of his own colleagues, has signaled his determination to pursue his inquiry. "When this situation broke, I felt it was the responsibility of the Congress, a co-equal branch of government, to start hearings," he commented recently. 

It seems counter-intuitive in the midst of a war to argue that the nation benefits when Congress is looking over the executive branch's shoulder, especially when it comes to the military. After all, we've been trained by a generation of action movies to believe that the meddling, publicity-seeking congressman only gets in the hero's way. In real life, however, the nation needs both: It needs people willing to serve in dangerous circumstances, but it also needs people willing to ask hard and sometimes discomforting questions about whether our interests are really being reflected. 

There is a world of meaning to be read into Senator Warner's passing reference to Congress as "a co-equal branch of government." It was a small but pointed reminder that the White House, Pentagon and executive agencies are not the only shapers of official U.S. policies and activities. Congress- the people's branch of government- has not just the right, but the duty, to be at the table as well. It especially has both the right and the duty to be the body asking those hard questions. 

Good congressional oversight is fundamental to our democracy. At its best, it helps Congress- and, through it, the American people- evaluate how well our government and its representatives, whether they're soldiers or bureaucrats, are performing. It can ferret out malfeasance, compel executive-branch policy-makers to explain their policies and substantiate the reasoning that underlies them, and ensure that our federal government is truly acting in the best interests of the nation. Done well, oversight protects the country from bureaucratic arrogance, prevents misconduct, and gives voters the information they need to judge the activities of an administration. 

Unfortunately, it has been quite a while since Congress really lived up to its responsibilities in this regard. During the 1990s, it fell into the habit of pursuing personal investigations of high-profile public figures at the expense of the more constructive- but less glamorous- work of ongoing policy oversight. More recently, Congress has done so little real oversight- as opposed to hearings designed to score political points- that it's fair to say its reflexes have gone rusty. 

So while it is heartening to see the Senate Armed Services Committee stepping into the breach, I'd like to suggest that all it has done is make a good start. Its challenge will be to follow through on its hearings, demand accountability and transparency from the officials who come before it, and determine whether there are aspects of military policy regarding prisoners that need fixing. And while all this is going on, let's hope that the rest of Congress is paying attention. 

For the current hearings are a hopeful sign only if the habit catches on. Congress needs to develop a continuous, systematic oversight process, one that impels congressional committees to look into the vast range of federal activities that never get into the newspaper headlines. In this regard, it might pay attention to some of the people who invent those headlines- newspaper and television news editors. With the war in Iraq and the upcoming presidential elections demanding space and coverage, some news executives are starting to worry about what is not getting covered. "The war is an overriding issue, but that comes with consequences," Tom Rosenstiel, who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, was quoted recently as saying. "I'm sure we'll find out in two years that things went unnoticed- things that will come back to haunt us." 

There is a lesson to be learned from Abu Ghraib, and it is this: Even in a democracy, appalling things can happen in the shadows. For the press, it is a professional shortcoming when it fails to bring them to our attention. For Congress, it is a dereliction of its constitutional duties. It is Congress's responsibility to shine light on the workings of government, and to ensure that its actions really do reflect the generous and honorable nature of our country. Far from sniping at the senators who are investigating our country's activities in Iraq, we should be praising them- and demanding more from them and their colleagues. 

(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.)