What a divided Congress needs most: Bipartisan oversight
Divided government is returning to Washington early in January. With a Democratic-led Senate and a Republican-led House, Congress once again will need to find ways to compromise on legislation.
But legislating is not Congress’s only job. Since the very first Congress, government oversight has been an essential function. As the Supreme Court once put it, “the power of inquiry, with process to enforce it, is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function.”
We know that partisanship sometimes drives oversight, and it’s no secret that House Republicans intend to aggressively use this “power of inquiry” — much like the Democratic majority did before them. Lawmakers have already announced plans to investigate matters such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Mexican border crisis, COVID spending, and Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
But while partisan-driven inquiries may have become part of the congressional zeitgeist, they should not be the only type of investigations our elected officials conduct. Americans need and deserve serious, straightforward oversight into essentially non-partisan matters such as government efficiency, public health, public safety and countless other topics.
As former Republican and Democratic staff members in the House and Senate — with more than 30 years of combined experience working on congressional investigations — we have watched with regret and alarm as congressional oversight has become unduly weaponized. Too often the chief goal is to damage the other party rather than to uncover truths that can lead to meaningful reforms. This is unfortunate because there is so much truth to uncover, so many things that Congress and the public need to know about how their government functions and how hard-earned tax dollars are spent.
Think about it: When was the last “bipartisan” investigation held on pivotal issues such as energy policy, criminal justice reform, school security, or conflicts of interest in government. These issues not only affect most every American but, in some cases, the implications are gargantuan.
We understand that in today’s polarized world, aggressive oversight targeting one administration over another seems inevitable. But such noisy inquiries must not crowd out more reasoned, less bombastic investigations committed to the public good. Rarely do we see hearings where Republicans and Democrats investigate issues together, in partnership — not to see who can get headlines or a cleverly crafted soundbite re-tweeted countless times, but to uncover facts that will benefit the many rather than the few.
If you speak with Senate and House members, nearly all will say they came to Washington to do good, to make America a better country, and to serve their constituents. When they can speak candidly, many will say they dislike — or even despise — the severe partisanship sweeping our government and society. For most of them, however, it’s politically too risky to openly praise the other party, or even call for serious bipartisanship on legislation.
But congressional oversight provides an ideal opportunity for lawmakers to pursue the public good in a less hyperbolic setting.
We are on the cusp of a new Congress, keenly divided by party. We know that virtually every member of Congress yearns for America to be a better place for everyone, even if they disagree on how to get there. Congressional oversight is an essential tool for making that a reality.
As Congress moves forward in deciding which issues warrant oversight, hopefully some of the inquiries will not only benefit the public but also start mending the chasm between our two parties.
Congressional oversight should always be independent, evidence-based, driven by the law, and guided by facts. Oversight is essential to ensuring that laws passed are working properly and are implemented in an efficient, effective, and economical manner. American taxpayers deserve no less.
During almost four decades in federal service, Emilia DiSanto worked in numerous oversight roles as the special counsel and chief investigative counsel to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) on the Senate’s Finance and Aging committees and as a State Department deputy inspector general, among other roles.
During his 16 years as a Senate staffer, Sam Goodstein worked as chief of staff, legislative director and chief counsel for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), among other roles.Both are executive vice presidents of Venn Strategies, a government and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington.