Hamilton column: We're getting a lesson on why congressional oversight matters
"In the end it’s not about politics, it’s about seeing that the federal government is serving the American people’s interests," writes Lee Hamilton.
It’s impossible to know right now what impact the work of the Jan. 6 committee will have in the long run, though it’s a fair bet that whatever the political and legal repercussions, there will be legislation coming. In pulling back the curtain on that day, the days leading up to it, and the days that followed, the committee has offered Americans a clear-eyed look at the misbehavior of high-ranking government officials all the way up to the president.
The committee’s work is a dramatic reminder of why congressional oversight matters. In the minds of most members of Congress, oversight tends to take a back seat to legislating and constituent service. This is understandable. There’s usually no glory and — except in rare circumstances like these — little media attention paid to congressional oversight work.
Yet it’s every bit as important as passing legislation. This is because making government work well is extremely difficult, even when officials are trying to do so. Even accomplished office-holders and civil servants struggle to ensure that their agencies and programs are working efficiently, effectively, and in line with what Congress intended. And when they don’t, we read about government mistakes and missteps, and action or lack of action. That’s Congress’s job: to look into every nook and cranny of the executive branch, to call attention to it, debate it, and, if necessary, to legislate improvements.
I’m not suggesting Congress should directly be involved in the management of federal programs. Far from it. But Congress does have the responsibility to hold the president and his administration accountable for their actions, to ensure that the government is functioning properly and our laws are working as intended — or can be adjusted if they’re not — and that taxpayer dollars are being used effectively.
And this applies no matter who’s in power. If the majority party in Congress also controls the White House, there’s a natural inclination to ease up on oversight, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. Members of Congress who claim they’re serious about oversight can only prove it by being as rigorous when their own party holds power at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue as when their political opponents do. That’s because in the end it’s not about politics, it’s about seeing that the federal government is serving the American people’s interests.
Congress has plenty of tools to do this. They include the periodic reauthorization of agencies and laws, most of which are passed for a set period; personal visits by members or their staff to see that things are going as the law intended; using the Government Accountability Office and the various inspectors general to dig into the fine points of government operations; and issuing subpoenas, holding hearings, conducting investigations, and reporting the findings to the American people.
Strong oversight should be the daily business of Capitol Hill, not just an occasional feature. That is how Congress can help protect the country from an inferior presidency, bureaucratic arrogance, the blind pursuit of rules and regulations that do more harm than good, and, of course, corruption and malfeasance.
There’s a cost to all of this, of course, so Congress has to make sure that the oversight is adequately funded. This means not just money to fund the work, but the expertise to pursue it.
Government and the issues it addresses are complicated. Congress needs access to experts in every field it gets into — to counter and add to what the executive branch says, to critique and analyze policies, and to praise good work when it happens. Washington is filled with people like that, who know their fields, are nonpartisan, and just want government to work properly.
At its best, as the Jan. 6 committee is demonstrating, effective oversight is essential to the functioning of our democracy.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.