The Sorry State of Congressional Oversight
By: Winslow Wheeler | May 11, 2010
"Oversight is one of the most important things that Congress does, or rather, these days doesn’t do."
In 1975, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote “The Founding Fathers supposed that the Legislative branch would play its part in preserving the balance of the Constitution through its possession of three vital powers: the power to authorize war; the power of the purse; and the power of investigation.” And again, “While the conventional assumption is that the strength of legislative bodies lies in the power to legislate, a respectable tradition has long argued that it lies as much or more in the power to investigate.”
Those observations are to be found in a remarkable series of volumes that I regard as a bible for anyone with any serious interest in congressional oversight – the art of finding out what the hell is going on in any subject matter, whether it be a predatory defense contractor, a mismanaged Pentagon program, or a President seeking an unjustified war. That series of volumes is “Congress Investigates: 1792-1974,” edited by Schlesinger and another historian, Roger Burns. After an introduction by Schlesinger, the introductory book describes 16 major congressional investigations spanning from a now obscure defeat of an anti-Indian expedition in 1792 (“St Clair’s Defeat”) up to Watergate in 1974. The additional supporting volumes I through VI go into many more happy and unhappy examples.
The grossly incompetent, the meddlesome, the revoltingly politically driven, and the rare exercises in seriousness, such as the remarkable World War II Truman Commission, are all described in detail. Those details and the lessons belie the modern congressional foolishness that all you need to do to understand something is to convene a few senators at a hearing and ask a few questions, after you have read a staff memo.
Since the Watergate investigation in 1974 (as flawed as that inquiry was), things have gotten seriously worse. Today’s Congress is utterly incapable—mostly unwilling, I believe—to hold anything approaching a real investigation. Check it out; go to any hearing of the Armed Services or Appropriations committees. Mostly, you will observe speeches, sometimes without even the pretense of a question patched on at the end. Those actually asking a question, will summarize, if not read, from a staff memo in front of them. Listen for a follow up question after the non-answer from the witness; they’re rare. Less seldom are the questions actually probing for an answer in favor of a pork project in the home state or district. It’s all pretty pitiful.
Real oversight is most commonly to be avoided in the modern Congress. Real oversight will almost always alienate the witness, which can retard pork if it’s a Pentagon witness, or worse, retard campaign contributions, if it’s a corporate witness. When senators or representatives call in an unfriendly witness, like Toyota or Goldman Sachs managers, the questioning techniques become huffy, but the results are that we learn little, if anything, new. It's political theater, not oversight.
Too cynical? Ask someone who has been closely watching congressional oversight for two decades. Ask Danielle Brian, who runs the Project On Government Oversight, POGO. Someone did. Danielle was interviewed by Dan Froomkin at the Nieman Watchdog at Harvard. ""Pathetic,"" and ""never been worse,"" she commented. However, Danielle is not jaded, like myself, but we don't disagree on much.
Read her interview at the Nieman Watchdog website.