The Administration

Constitution: Oversight by Congress is critical

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Our government’s separation of powers inherently creates conflict; there is incentive for each of the three branches to guard their power. But our Constitution tells us that Congress comes first among the three co-equal branches of government. It’s right there in Article One.

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton went on to further defend and operationalize a system of checks and balances, with each of our three branches of government having a degree of oversight. In Federalist #51, Madison noted that the “interior structure” of the government ensured that the different branches would “keep…each other in their proper places.”

While politicians, being human, would always seek greater power, the separation of powers would help ensure that “ambition” would “counteract ambition.”

{mosads}In recent years, Congress has allowed its oversight muscles to atrophy. As the Democracy Fund’s Governance Program notes, regular oversight by congressional committees has traditionally played a crucial, constructive role in program management, cross-branch information exchange, and, important for many conservatives, in limiting the size and scope of government as part of the regular review and reauthorization of federal legislation and programs.

As that capacity has diminished and hyper-partisanship has increased, regular oversight has been replaced by more antagonistic — and ultimately less productive — committee activity, undermining the effectiveness of the Congress as a whole.

Is Congress willing to reclaim some of its primacy, as articulated in Article One?

The Rules for the 115th 5th Congress adopted by the House of Representatives on January 3rd contained an interesting provision.

H.Res. 5, Section 2, subsection (b) “requires each standing committee (except the Committees on Appropriations, Ethics, and Rules) to adopt an authorization and oversight plan, which must be submitted to the Committees on Oversight and Government Reform, House Administration, and Appropriations no later than February 15 of the first session of Congress” and “requires the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, after consultation with the Speaker, Majority Leader, and the Minority Leader, report the oversight and authorization plans to the House by March 31 of the first session of Congress.”

In short, it requires them to do their job. Now what?

In his 2010 paper, “Congressional Oversight: An Overview,” Walter Oleszek noted that while people may disagree on what constitutes “quality” oversight, “there are a number of components that appear to foster effective oversight, including sustained effort by the chair and committee members, bipartisanship, an experienced professional staff with investigatory skills; preparation and documentation in advance of public hearings; coordination and follow-through.”

Congress needs the resources, staff expertise, adequate preparation, bipartisan agreement and, perhaps more essential than anything at the moment, member commitment.

Do conservatives currently have that commitment? For those of us who got involved in politics in 1980 believing in a limited role for government, the rights and power of the individual, and the rule of law in protecting those rights – that commitment requires effective congressional oversight of the Executive Branch.

Long ago, Senator Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln debated slavery in the context of “Popular Sovereignty.” While Douglas argued that the will of the people was and should be all-sovereign in our democracy, Lincoln – a founding father of our Republican party — argued that that popular will had to exist within the framework of the higher power of a moral code – in the same way freedom had to be balanced with justice, and Unum had to be balanced with Pluribus. 

For those who care about values-based leadership, rules matter — starting with the rule of law.  And that is what oversight is — enforcement of the rules. 

As the last Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses (and Virginia Delegate to the Constitutional Congress) Peyton Randolph once stated, “We shall engage in serious and, at times, heated debate, but do not imagine that this conflict is to be avoided. A variety of opinions is not only absolutely necessary to our natures but is likewise of all things most useful, since if all men were of one mind, there would be no need of councils, no subject of learning and eloquence…Within this process we shall hear one another patiently, put the weight of every man’s reason against our own, and at last form a judgment upon the matter which will be honest and commendable.”

Section Five of the same House Rules package approved January 3rd also “allows the Speaker to recognize Members for the reading of the Constitution on any legislative day through January 13, 2017.”

Let’s hope Members actually do read that document, every single day beginning with Article One, and that they aggressively and intentionally exercise the oversight of the Executive Branch that is the constitutional, conservative and moral imperative of their office and our entire system of government.

Betsy Wright Hawkings worked as a chief of staff for nearly 25 years on Capitol Hill. She is currently the Director of the Governance Program at the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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