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Fiscal Oversight Directive a Welcome Breath of Spring Air

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has directed all House committee chairmen to submit to her by March 13 timetables for oversight hearings into how federal departments and agencies under their jurisdiction are spending money. Her initiative is a welcome breath of spring air. May 100 oversight blossoms bloom this month.

[IMGCAP(1)]In her Feb. 19 letter, the Speaker noted that “as our nation continues to confront severe budget deficits … it is essential that, as we advance our priorities, House committees also conduct rigorous oversight of all aspects of federal spending and government operations to help achieve deficit reduction and long-term fiscal responsibility.”

Pelosi said the effort “is consistent with President Barack Obama’s call for long-term fiscal discipline.” Her letter was sent on the eve of the president’s “fiscal responsibility summit” last Monday. It was more a White House conference than a summit since it was not aimed at producing a final budget agreement. Nevertheless, it was a good launch for a national conversation about our long-term deficit problems — something 87 percent of the American people are “very concerned” about, according to last week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The Speaker went on to note that her oversight directive also builds on a House rule change (spearheaded by the Blue Dog Democrats) that requires each standing committee (or a subcommittee thereof) to hold at least one oversight hearing every 120 days on “waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement in government programs.” That new oversight mandate was adopted Jan. 14 on a 430-0 roll call vote.

One of Congress’ greatest failings over the years has been a neglect of its responsibility to carefully scrutinize government agencies and programs to determine whether they are working as intended. It’s much more exciting and politically rewarding to introduce and pass new laws than it is to dust off old ones to determine whether they are delivering on their original promises.

Even when committees claim to be conducting hard-hitting oversight, they’re usually talking about the kind of sexy, investigative hearings that attract massive media coverage by exposing executive branch wrongdoing, corporate greed or athletic doping — all designed to permit Members to fulminate in righteous indignation before the cameras and compete for sound bites on the evening news. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Politics is, after all, theater, and Congress stages some of the best morality plays around. And the bottom line of any morality play is to drive home a moral by exposing the evil-doers and setting the world right again.

But that is simply one form of oversight. Programmatic oversight is much more difficult, tedious and politically unrewarding. Yet it is even more necessary and important than investigative oversight because it goes to the heart of how taxpayers’ dollars are being spent. Are the American people getting their money’s worth? That’s an especially important question today with all the additional billions being directed at economic recovery and financial bailouts.

House and Senate rules already contain ample authority, incentives and mandates to conduct oversight. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (as amended in 1970) directed committees to “review, and study on a continuing basis the application, administration, execution and effectiveness of laws and programs” within their jurisdictions to determine whether they “are being implemented and carried out in accordance with the intent of Congress and whether they should be continued, curtailed, or eliminated.”

In 1974, the House adopted a rule requiring most of its committees to establish a separate oversight subcommittee. A Democratic Caucus substitute rule permitted an alternative approach of ensuring existing legislative subcommittees also conduct oversight of programs within their jurisdictions. The committee report on that rule change makes clear that an oversight subcommittee should “have no other functions than those directly related to this responsibility” — that oversight be “its first and only priority.”

In 1999, the House adopted a further rule change allowing committees to have six subcommittees (one more than the five- subcommittee limit) if they establish an oversight subcommittee. At the time, only six House committees had exclusive oversight subcommittees; today, nine do (not counting the Agriculture Committee, whose sixth subcommittee, on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry, also has legislative authority — a clear violation of the intent of the rule).

Another oversight reform adopted in 1974 now provides that by Feb. 15 of the first session of a Congress, all House committees adopt oversight plans for that Congress and submit them to the Oversight and Government Reform and House Administration committees. Not later than March 31, the Speaker, Minority Leader and Oversight Committee are required to report to the House all the oversight plans submitted by committees along with any recommendations for ensuring the most effective coordination among committees.

Even though committees have presumably already adopted their oversight agendas for this Congress, any additional hearings designed to comply with the Speaker’s recent directive will likely be folded into the required March 31 compilation of plans. At the end of each Congress, House committees must include in their final activity reports an accounting for their oversight plans — what they were and were not able to accomplish — along with summaries of any additional oversight activities not anticipated in the original plans.

Whether the 111th Congress distinguishes itself as an “Oversight Congress” remains to be seen. However, given the transparency of Congress, we will know soon enough. It is difficult to hide doing little or no serious oversight. Committees will not be able to explain away their inactivity as a simple oversight.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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