Congress Must Not Abandon Its Critical Oversight Function

In Monday's Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria had an insightful column that started with why the dire predictions about the coming flu pandemic being the equal of the 1918 global disaster proved (so far) to be inaccurate. He offered well-deserved kudos to the Mexican government, which acted swiftly and decisively, and to the larger fact that governments are simply different--better equipped, better prepared, with a wholly different mindset--than they were in 1918. Zakaria applied the same logic to the dire predictions that we are about to enter the next Great Depression, also inaccurate and unlikely to occur, because governments globally have responded with "amazing speed and scale."

Zakaria noted the paradox here: The fear of disaster spurred sweeping responses to both swine flu and economic trauma, thereby likely preventing the disasters that were forecast. But his initial point is the one that should be well-taken by Congress and should lead to another kind of response.

Congress has the most action-packed, dare I say, overcrowded, agenda in our lifetimes. Every day, it seems, brings a new major policy action or initiative to the floor, from reforming the credit card business to adjusting student loans, from dealing with the mortgage crisis, automobile industry crisis, financial crisis and other crises, to grappling with major education reform, health care reform, military procurement reform, energy reform and climate change. Members are also arguing about torture and the CIA, debating how to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and hosting an array of international leaders.

Congress has the most action-packed, overcrowded agenda in our lifetimes.

But it appears that Congress, with 535 Members and a capable staff with some bench strength and depth, has so far been able to handle this dizzying array of issues and debates without becoming paralyzed, gridlocked or slipshod. Thus encouraged, I want to push for something more: a vigorous, wide-ranging effort at oversight that brings back in a big way, indeed in a bigger way than ever before, this critical Congressional priority.

Oversight does not just mean examining waste, fraud, abuse and scandal, although obviously all of those things are both fair game and necessary components of the legislative function. In the later Clinton years, the problem was a Congress that wanted to do oversight only on scandal and alleged scandal, down to an exhaustive examination of how the Clinton White House abused its Christmas card list for fundraising purposes. During many of the Bush years, the problem was a Congress that, with notable exceptions (Tom Davis, please come back), didn't want to do any oversight on any alleged or real problems, from Abu Ghraib to the U.S. attorney scandal, much less things like the failure to integrate the new and old functions of the Department of Homeland Security.

In the 110th Congress, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, under then-Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and then-ranking member Davis (R-Va.), was a whirlwind of oversight activity in a wide range of areas involving government programs and the private sector, including scandal and broader problems in the execution of programs and policies. But its efforts were not matched by the kind of in-depth and unsexy oversight that every other committee should do, including painstaking reviews of the performance of each program through the regular reauthorization processes and through annual appropriations. There, the efforts were light years beyond the previous few Congresses, but not nearly enough.

This year, we have a test of whether a Democratic Congress can do the kind of honest oversight of a Democratic president that an independent legislature should do regardless of which party controls the White House. It is a test made tougher by the heavy agenda, but the need is even greater. It includes the new programs such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which require vigorous oversight across the board: Are the policy objectives being achieved, are the monies being allocated appropriately and are we leaching out the kind of fraud that huge sums of money sloshing around inevitably bring or encourage?

And we need a deep and serious effort to see how the stimulus package is working: Are the dollars moving out as fast as they should? Are department officials striking the right balance, waiving or expediting things like environmental impact statements and cumbersome paperwork that can ordinarily delay a project start for months, to get the stimulus moving? Are the grants being handled with competitive bidding and without fraud or favoritism? The fact that Vice President Joseph Biden is leading an executive branch effort to do the same things has nothing to do with whether Congress fulfills its constitutional role. The same is true with the auto bailout, the role of the Fed in shaping a policy response to the economic crisis and so on.

Of course, with TARP, the stimulus and these other programs, we need ongoing oversight as the programs unfold. But we also need retrospective oversight to see how TARP was crafted and whether it did what it was intended to do in its first months, as well as whether we can learn lessons before the next crisis and the next executive proposal about how much to delegate to a Treasury secretary and where to draw the lines to respond to it. Just as we need to look back and see in depth what actions or inactions taken by Congress, the White House, the regulatory agencies and others, including banks, other financial institutions, ratings agencies, mortgage brokers and international regulatory entities, contributed to the subprime meltdown.

Now, back to where we started. Oversight does not mean looking only at failures or problems. It is also imperative that Congress look in depth at successes. Here, when the flu threat finally plays out, Congress should do a serious review of why it played out as it did. If indeed the pandemic turns out to be a run-of-the-mill flu problem, or if it was a disaster in the making averted because of swift, serious, coordinated policy actions across nations, we need to find out why this process worked so well and see whether we can draw lessons for future health disasters that may arise or bioterrorist attacks or dangers to the food supply or responses to terrorist threats. All this is a lot to ask, especially with the plate so full and overflowing. But Congress has the time, the talent and the resources to do it all, and do it right.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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