Program

Overseeing Oversight: A Blurred Picture?

May 19, 2000

by Donald Wolfensberger

Vice President Gore has already won the presidency. At least, that is what a group of political scientists, who have honed and polished the art of election forecasting, say. "The fact that opinion polls today give Bush a modest lead over Gore doesn't faze them," reports a recent article in the Washington Post. After all, academic forecasters have a better record than pollsters.

Likewise, academe goes its own way when assessing Congressional oversight. At a May 19 seminar, a scholar, two political leaders, and a congressional journalist debated the issue of how well Congress has been able to fulfil its oversight function in an age where oversight is seen to produce only meager political rewards.

The scholar was Joel Aberbach, who has written the definitive work on this topic (see above). Aberbach argues that members and particularly certain subcommittees now pursue oversight quite vigorously. (See Aberbach's seminar paper.) His findings are based on a variety of methods ranging from longitudinal analysis of committee oversight activity since 1961, to interviews with committee members and key staff personnel, to analysis of committee reports. Although oversight action may not produce the political dividends of some other activities, it does provide adequate rewards, Aberbach found.

Aberbach's book was published in 1990, but the data since then continue to support his thesis. In the past decade, the number of committee meetings and hearings was declining and with it the number of oversight sessions. However, a higher percentage (almost one third) of these meetings are devoted to the oversight function than seen in previous decades. "At least in quantitative terms, the watchful eye remains vigilant," Aberbach said.

The practitioners on the panel begged to differ, however, saying that their experience of Congress did not bear out Aberbach's main findings. Congress does not do a very effective job of overseeing the Executive Branch, said Senator Fred Thompson (left). Not only has the growth of government made oversight more difficult, but everybody is doing their own thing and hardly any members attend oversight hearings. When they do, it is to make speeches rather than learn from the expert witnesses, Thompson said.

Thompson chairs the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. He reported that usually only he and his ranking minority member, Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, attend his committees hearings. "We work together on a bipartisan basis and get things done. But most of it stops there. There is no effort at integrating oversight findings into the system of legislation and appropriations."

Former Representative Anthony Beilenson backed up Thompson's observations, saying that oversight is not viewed as part of the job for most members. There is no incentive or reward for doing it. Beilenson, who served in the California assembly and state senate before his election to Congress in 1976, praised his state legislature's system of reviewing every program annually with members of the governor's cabinet and experts from the Office of Legislative Analysis before passing a single appropriations measure for the entire government. "There were no oversight hearings and reports. We learned about programs and how they were doing in the process of deciding how much to fund them for the next year."

Congressional reporter Richard Cohen concurred with Thompson and Beilenson's argument that the quality of oversight has suffered in recent years. As government has grown, he said, there has been an utter failure by Congress to oversee programs. According to Cohen, the problem of committee oversight is symptomatic of what is going on in Congress generally. "They've lost bipartisanship and deliberation," he said, adding that there needs to be a recognition by members that the system is broken and a bipartisan and bicameral effort, together with the President, to fix it.

Responding to the other panelists, Aberbach said he agreed that quantity of oversight meetings does not necessarily guarantee quality. The quality of the oversight taking place may be suffering, Aberbach admitted. "One Congressional eye is wide open -- and presumably seeing what the majorities on congressional committees want it to see -- and the other eye is almost shut," he said. "The eye whose vision has changed the most is the one authorizing committees use when they review programs through the legislative process. Committees simply hold fewer hearings and meetings on authorizations, re-authorizations, amendments to ongoing programs, and the like."

The bottom line is that when federal programs are reauthorized only through the appropriations process, it's not good for the system, Aberbach remarked.