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Congress: The sleeping watchdog

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The health of our nation’s political life depends on the Congress—the people’s branch—holding the executive branch to account and exposing malfeasance in the public and private sectors.  This watchdog role—formally known as oversight—is every bit as important as passing laws in maintaining the checks and balances of our constitutional system.

At its core, vigorous oversight is the way Congress is supposed to keep the president from becoming a monarch. In practice, it means holding public committee hearings and conducting investigations into everything from a lost Social Security check to whether the country has the proper nuclear posture to deter a military attack.

{mosads}Done properly, congressional oversight investigations can impact policy and change society for the better. The congressionally-created 9/11 Commission produced valuable findings on the terrorist attacks and the government response to them. Congress’s investigation into Hurricane Katrina was even-handed and thorough. In the 1970s the Church Committee exposed abuses of power at the CIA, FBI and NSA that led to important new safeguards for American citizens.

Congress can also be a watchdog on the private sector when executive agencies fail to act. The 1994 House hearings on the dangers of tobacco ultimately led to a settlement of more than $200 billion. The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has investigated such scandals as Enron, credit card abuse and secret offshore bank accounts, leading to major legislation and industry reforms.

Lately, however, the congressional watchdog has been napping, or worse, barking up partisan trees. When Congress is controlled by the same party that holds the White House, Congress frequently turns its back on effective oversight and gives the president a pass. When Congress is controlled by the opposite party, too often oversight is used for highly political investigations simply to embarrass opponents or generate headlines, with no eye toward correcting a problem that affects citizens. Such witch-hunts give oversight a bad name.

This reflexive partisanship has been accompanied by an overall decline in oversight activity even as members of both parties complain about presidents usurping power.  Republicans repeatedly criticized President Obama’s alleged “executive overreach.” Democrats, as well as many Republicans, have decried President Trump’s imperial impulses and his apparent disdain for traditional “guardrails” that have constrained previous presidents. 

Yet instead of dedicating more assets and effort to credible bipartisan oversight, Congress in 2010 began to cut the budgets of its own committees, where most oversight is performed. Funding for most committees has fallen by a quarter or more since then. Legislative branch cuts were a kind of self-flagellation intended to appeal to unhappy voters, but they’ve just made Congress weaker, without making it more popular.  

The decline in Congress’s capacity and will to aggressively oversee executive branch operations and policies is an under-recognized problem in our governance. This is hard work that often carries political risks for members who undertake it. But ceding even more authority to sprawling executive agencies that are less accountable and connected to the public is extremely dangerous to our constitutional system. 

Change starts with the voters. They need to understand the importance of this decline in oversight and demand more of it from their lawmakers. And they should not reward mere partisan grandstanding.

In an era of legislative gridlock, members of Congress should see that bipartisan oversight can be good politics. When it’s hard to get a bill passed, constituents will applaud a legislator who uses the oversight process to tackle a problem that affects their wallet, their safety, their health or their children.

To that end, at The Lugar Center we are developing an “oversight map” to inform voters how each congressional committee performs its oversight function. We will assess all 45 committees on how much, or how little, they are doing.

We have also been working to improve oversight in cooperation with the non-partisan Project on Government Oversight and the Levin Center at Wayne Law, founded by former Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), which is dedicated to strengthening in-depth, bipartisan oversight at the state and federal level.  Together we host two-day bipartisan “boot camps” for Hill staffers on how to develop and implement bipartisan oversight investigations.

Some lawmakers seem to think it’s easier to get re-elected if they do nothing. That’s a disservice to the Constitution and to their constituents. Voters want Congress to solve their problems, not score political points. Bipartisan oversight is a good place to start.

Lugar served 36 years in the U.S. Senate. He is founder and president of The Lugar Center, a Washington-based non-profit that addresses issues of foreign policy and bipartisan governance. 

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