Stats show Senate oversight is as bad as it seems
President Trump’s habit of pushing the boundaries of presidential power has been on particular display lately, including threatening to overrule states on pandemic reopening, firing agency inspectors general and threatening to put armed soldiers on our streets.
These challenges to American democratic process have spurred full debate on cable news over the relative powers of the president, Congress, governors and the courts. Americans are getting a crash course in the distribution of power in the American system.
Perhaps the least understood element in this debate is congressional oversight — the monitoring of federal agencies’ performance, primarily through public hearings. The most potent and immediate check on executive overreach and incompetence, oversight “is an integral part of the American system of checks and balances,” says the Congressional Research Service.
The federal government is an immense enterprise with power over the well-being of all Americans. Even a routine House or Senate hearing that simply examines current programs might save billions of dollars, prevent a crisis, or lead to more effective services for Americans.
But in recent years, too many committees have sat on their hands rather than wield their oversight power, especially when the president is a member of the committee leader’s party. Today’s Senate is a glaring example. In both houses, only committee chairs can call formal hearings, yet they are largely free from pressure to conduct vigilant oversight.
That’s partly because most members who gain a chairmanship have considerable seniority, and which usually means they represent relatively safe districts and states. To the degree that chairs don’t face a challenging general election, they are less likely to be activist in examining presidents of their own party.
More importantly, there has been no reliable measure of what constitutes normal oversight for each committee. Chairs could defend their record by citing anecdotal evidence of a few oversight hearings. With no objective basis for judging their oversight performance, it has been very difficult to hold committee chairs accountable.
That has changed. The new Congressional Oversight Hearing Index (COHI) released in May by The Lugar Center establishes a statistical oversight standard for 34 committees in the House and Senate. The new analytical tool categorizes roughly 20,000 hearings held during the last 12 years according to the richness of their oversight content. By applying an objective formula to this data, the Index establishes the level and frequency of oversight that is normal for each committee. This allows for a real-time grade to be applied to the oversight performance of each committee, and the representative or senator who leads it.
Our initial findings show starkly different performances by the House and Senate in the current Congress. In the Democratic-run House, nine of the 17 committees graded received “A’s,” meaning their oversight hearing tempo is at least 90 percent of the highest score achieved in that committee since 2009. Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled Senate is on its way to the weakest oversight performance of either house over the 12 years we have charted. Only the Senate Small Business Committee chaired by Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) holds an “A.” Eight Senate committees currently have an “F.” Four have “D’s.”
Members’ reluctance to question an administration of their own party may be understandable. But that doesn’t make it right. Congress has an institutional and Constitutional duty to oversee the government, no matter who’s in charge. In the 108th Congress (2003-2004), for example, the Republican-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee held 23 hearings on the Iraq War then being waged by Republican President George W. Bush.
At the time, this wasn’t deemed unusual. The Bush administration wasn’t thrilled with these hearings, because they inherently questioned the purposes and execution of the Bush-initiated war during an election cycle. Occasionally, the Bush administration pushed back. But to its credit, it almost always complied with requests for high-profile witnesses. It never argued that congressional oversight was illegitimate or that public hearings didn’t serve an important constitutional function.
What was normal in 2003 seems incomprehensible today. Would any committee chair in our partisan environment hold dozens of public hearings that raise questions about a top priority of their party’s president?
Returning to this tradition of sustained, bipartisan oversight could help fix what most agree is a broken political system. The first step was establishing a measurable standard. Next, it is up to citizens, the media and office holders to focus on who’s meeting Congress’s oversight responsibilities and who’s not. And once voters hold Congress to account, Congress may once again embrace its right to hold the executive to account.
Dan Diller is policy director and Jay Branegan a senior fellow at The Lugar Center, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving bipartisan governance.