The vast expansion of the power and reach of the executive branch of government under both Republican and Democratic administrations has only increased the need for vigorous, unflinching congressional oversight. Under one-party rule in Washington, with Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress and the executive branch, the majority reiterated its commitment to congressional oversight.
Unfortunately, since President Obama took office 19 months ago, the country has seen the emergence of a large accountability gap. Congress’ chief watchdog committee has failed repeatedly to conduct meaningful and sustained investigations and hold federal executives and bureaucrats responsible for the unprecedented levels of waste, fraud, and abuse that such rapid growth has nurtured.
Despite repeated requests by the Republican minority for oversight hearings, joint investigations, and subpoenas, and despite myriad news reports raising allegations of waste, fraud, and other misconduct, the Oversight Committee and the Democratic-controlled Congress have overwhelmingly shunned responsible but tough oversight of the Obama administration.
As of August 2010, the Republican members of the Oversight Committee had sent 46 letters to the Democratic Chairman of the committee or its subcommittee chairs requesting hearings, additional witnesses at hearings, or subpoenas of important documents related to significant investigations. Formal responses were received for only six of those requests.
If you’re looking for a blueprint of what type of oversight agenda we should pursue next year, regardless of whether or not Republicans are in the majority or minority, these hearings requested by the Republican minority but ignored by the Democratic majority are a good start:
Food Safety - In 2009, following a salmonella outbreak in a Georgia peanut plant that led to at least 8 deaths and more than 500 illnesses, I sent a letter to Chairman Towns requesting a hearing on the federal food safety bureaucracy, citing a GAO report that identified 15 different federal agencies responsible for administering 30 food safety-related laws and noting that “our Committee is uniquely positioned to look at the coordination and cooperation amongst departments and agencies.” No response to the request was received, and nothing was done to hold the federal agencies accountable. A year and a half later, the nation has suffered another salmonella outbreak with more than 500 million eggs in 22 states recalled and more than 2,000 reported illnesses.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – Despite the role Fannie and Freddie played in the financial crisis and the huge financial stakes for the American taxpayer involved in continuing to prop up these organizations, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill did nothing to address them and Treasury Secretary Geithner announced that the administration would not produce a plan to reform Fannie and Freddie until 2011.
Wasteful Stimulus Spending – The Republican minority has provided the Democratic majority with evidence of government agencies wasting stimulus funds on projects of dubious merit that appear to contradict the administration’s stated goals for stimulus-worthy projects and that therefore are ripe for oversight. For example, the committee minority requested in a letter that the committee hold a hearing to scrutinize hundreds of thousands of dollars for wasteful projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts through ARRA.
Minerals Management Service – The last time Republicans had subpoena power was in 2006, where as a subcommittee chairman I used it to compel the testimony of oil executives and expose cozy relationship with the Minerals Management Service (MMS) - the federal entity charged with over-seeing oil companies and their drilling activities. In wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, we need to ensure that reforms within the bureaucracy are happening and working.
School Choice – The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) was launched by Congress in 2004, with bipartisan support, to give economically disadvantaged District of Columbia children the chance for a quality education outside of public school classrooms plagued by problems. The program has been proven highly successful by every known measurement, including academic improvement, personal safety, and parental satisfaction. A strong coalition of academics, journalists and civic leaders are supporting reauthorization of OSP in the House and Senate. However, the Obama administration is now phasing out the program.
Congress’ chief watchdog committee requested 61 percent less information in the first year of the 111th Congress than it did in the 110th. The committee held 21 percent fewer hearings, and the subjects of those hearings were too often far outside the most pressing issues facing the American people. It is difficult to attribute these changes from the 110th Congress to the 111th to anything other than the party in control of the White House.
Only four years ago Democrats lamented a lack of congressional oversight under one-party rule. But today, at a time of unprecedented expenditures and growth in the federal workforce and its presence in Americans’ lives, with all the potential for fraud, waste, and abuse such growth carries with it, the Democratic-controlled Congress has consciously abdicated its Constitutional responsibility to provide oversight of the executive branch.
Perhaps White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said it best in 2007, “We want to be the party that is ferreting out waste and fraud, and [the Oversight] committee is the point of the spear for us.”