The Bridge: Checks and (Im)balances

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Reclaiming Congress’s power

You may remember learning about our federal government’s system of checks and balances back in grade school, perhaps from a Schoolhouse Rock VHS tape. (Those groovy tunes still hold up, by the way.) The concept is simple enough for a young mind to grasp but captures a deeply rooted philosophical ideal. Checks and balances keep the power of each of the three branches of our government at an equilibrium and make them accountable to one another — at least on paper.

But over decades, the legislative branch has failed to wield its unique authority over the other branches, which has sent the system teetering. Congress needs to reclaim its power to be as useful to our democracy as it was designed to be. What does Congress need to hold the other branches in check?

In this edition:

  • Defining the delicate balance
  • A crucial (forgotten) responsibility
  • Existing barriers...
  • And how to break through

For this edition of The Bridge, I talked to Tim Stretton, director of POGO’s Congressional Oversight Initiative (COI). For nearly two decades, COI has worked to address the oversight issue in Congress by training Capitol Hill staff on how to conduct effective oversight. Tim talked me through the promise of a democratic system with checks and balances like ours, what’s been causing the current imbalance, and what it’s going to take for the branches to reestablish a state of equilibrium.

Congress Must Reclaim Its Role as a Check on Executive Power

Back to basics

In our democratic system, power is divided among the three distinct branches. Checks and balances are the guardrails of this separation of powers — they prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful. “The whole point of these checks and balances is to hold the branches of the government accountable to one another, to make sure they’re doing their jobs in an effective, efficient way,” Tim explained.

Each branch has unique responsibilities and tools to meet these ends. For Congress, those include, but are not limited to, the power to make legislation and conduct oversight over the other branches.

There’s more of a focus on Congress’s legislative work, but congressional oversight is just as important,” Tim told me. “You can’t legislate absent oversight. You need to be able to identify existing issues before you go on to pitch bills or reforms. If you can’t, that’s a problem.”

Tim said to me that oversight is like the necessary work of getting a toothache examined before it turns into a full-on root canal. Oversight through fact-based, bipartisan investigation is a key tool for identifying and preventing waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government. It’s one of Congress’s most crucial constitutional responsibilities, but it hasn’t been prioritized as such.

Whose job is it anyway?

There’s a number of reasons why Congress is failing to conduct oversight sufficiently or effectively.

There’s the sheer matter of size. Congress is a small branch of government tasked with conducting oversight over the entirety of the federal government. They have also historically underfunded themselves during the appropriations process. “They don’t invest in themselves as much as they invest in the other branches,” Tim said.

Staff Minimum Pay Invests in Congress’s Oversight Capacity

The compounding issues of understaffing, heavy workloads, lack of funds, and notoriously low wages have led to the problem of high staff turnover. According to a study by New America, 43% of congressional staff plan to leave “by the end of the Congress in which they are employed,” within just two years. “What happens with that is you lose a lot of institutional knowledge,” Tim said.

The loss of institutional knowledge means staff are often playing catch-up on how to do their most basic responsibilities, including how to conduct oversight. But it’s more pervasive than just that — staff are unsure of what their responsibilities and tools even are. Tim told me about a time COI was contacted by a congressional office asking for tips on how to get federal agencies to respond to their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. But when it comes to FOIA, Congress can't be treated as just another member of the public. By virtue of constitutional duty, Congress is supposed to have access to all the records they need to conduct oversight, and they have the power to close the existing loopholes that allow agencies to deny the records to them. “If Congress doesn’t realize their own authorities, there’s a major problem. It’s important that Congress is well educated on all the tools and powers they have.

There’s a Congressional Staff Academy that’s supposed to help new staffers understand how to do their jobs, but it doesn’t provide sufficient education or training, which is why staff are forced to look elsewhere for guidance on how to properly use the tools at their disposal. The lack of investment in staffers and training is creating an oversight gap, leading staff to miss opportunities to evaluate, investigate, and reform the other branches of government for the better.

We aim to address that gap through our initiative, but it continues to be a serious problem,” Tim told me.

Study Shows POGO’s Oversight Trainings Increase Congressional Capacity

Reinstating order

Congressional oversight is key to ensuring the legislative branch serves as an effective check on the other branches. “Bipartisan oversight is not just a theoretical concept: It is a historical norm, and it can be done,” Tim explained. “Identifying problems and solutions actually builds support for legislation down the road.”

The oversight gap is not merely a missed opportunity for Congress, but a disregard for our system of checks and balances, and, as Tim put it, a disservice to the American people. But for Congress to conduct effective oversight, they need to start by investing in themselves: prioritizing training, retaining, and providing resources for their staff. A skilled and well-resourced congressional staff is in all of our best interests.