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A Pair of Opposites Kept the Heat On

Between 2008 and 2012, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin and Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn worked collaboratively as the leaders of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, despite Levin’s praise for government’s regulatory role and Coburn, nicknamed “Dr. No,” leaning so far to the right as to be libertarian.

Now that both have left Capitol Hill, they still share common ground on one point: Congress doesn’t do nearly a good enough job in its oversight and investigative role, overall.

“I don’t know if I can assess what Congress is doing now because I left. What I do know is there’s never enough congressional oversight,” Coburn says, particularly criticizing the job done by the Appropriations committees. “One of the reasons I left up there is that Washington doesn’t fix itself. I don’t see anyone leading to do anything to hold the administration accountable and hold Congress accountable.”

Says Levin: “The state is not what it should be.” In addition to investigating government, one of Congress’ really important roles is oversight of parts of the private sector that need government regulation, he says, “like the big banks.”

“Congress,” Levin says, “has not done enough, in my judgment, to do the detailed, bipartisan, in-depth oversight that is important to bring accountability to individuals who have failed to do their job and act responsibly.”

Levin is currently exploring ways to improve oversight from the outside looking in, to stay involved in teaching the value and principles of oversight, although he would not yet comment on any specific plans. Coburn is involved in an effort to bring the states together for a constitutional convention, with many of his ideas aimed at rejiggering Congress.

Cooperative Lessons

Both former senators have some best practices they followed while conducting oversight and investigations.

“First you’ve got to be willing to take on powerful interests,” which can be exhausting, since those interests are often represented by talented, high-powered lawyers who tilt the balance toward the wealthy, Levin says.

“Secondly, you’ve got to be willing to take the time to do something in-depth; some of our investigations lasted over a year,” he says. “Third, it’s essential to be bipartisan to avoid some of the highly partisan oversight hearings that occurred in the House.”

Levin says he was referring to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee under the leadership of California Republican Darrell Issa and the House’s preoccupation with the 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Coburn’s take on lessons learned: “First of all, you’ve got to try to be fair. If somebody’s cooperating with you, you’ve got to be fair and not rush to judgment. You don’t want to exaggerate the problem, and you lose all credibility when you do it.”

Bipartisanship is important, too, Coburn says, something made easier by Levin’s own inclinations: “I tried to do everything when I was on the oversight committee with him — everything was bipartisan, but we didn’t always come to the same conclusion based on the facts.”

Neither could identify what they considered their best oversight and investigative work over their careers, instead indicating recent work of which they were proud: Levin singled out investigations of the financial industry, while Coburn mentioned the same, as well as an investigation of the Social Security Administration.

Where they differ is in their degree of hope. Levin says he is optimistic about the new leaders of the Investigations subcommittee, Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Coburn says “we have a lot of good people” in Congress to conduct oversight. It’s what happens after that’s worrisome.

“The question is not, ‘Do you do oversight and get it out there?’” Coburn says. “The question is, ‘How do you get Congress to act on it once you get it out there?’ We lack the leadership to address those real issues.”

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