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American Politics:
©Marc A. Triebwasser

Congressional Oversight

The relationship between Congress and the Executive Branch is not only evident in the relationship between Congress and the President which we have already discussed. During the twentieth century, Congress has established a large number of federal programs administered by agencies within the Executive Branch. Through this process of a broad delegation of authority to the executive Branch, Congress has helped create a vast Federal Bureaucracy. The relationship of Congress to the Executive Branch today must therefore be seen in terms of its relation to this Bureaucracy, as well as its relation to the Presidency.

In order to gain some control over the operations of the various agencies which had been established within the Executive Branch, Congress in 1946 began to develop a series of structures and procedures designed to oversee the Bureaucracy. This process generally came to be known as congressional oversight. Although no pun was probably intended in the coining of this phrase, its secondary meaning certainly comes to mind when one examines how this process has actually tended to operate. There are several methods through which congressional oversight operations take place: the committee process, congressional administrative offices, casework, as well as a number of administrative techniques.

Oversight Through Committees

There are three types of committees through which congressional oversight functions take place: authorizations committees, appropriations committees, and governmental operations committees.

Authorization Committees. The first type of committee is the substantive committee which originally establishes or authorizes the program or agency. In the case of a military program, this would be the Armed Services Committees in both chambers. In the case of an urban program, this would be the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee in the House and the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee in the Senate. Similarly, each program area within the Federal Bureaucracy is related to at least one specific substantive standing committee in each chamber of Congress.

In attempting to pursue oversight activities through these authorization committees, a number of problems are often encountered. One of these results from the fact that a particular governmental agency may fall within the jurisdiction of several different substantive committees or subcommittees. As a result, the agency may play one committee or subcommittee against the other in order to achieve those results in Congress which tend to benefit the agency the most. Another problem is that a committee which establishes a program is often too involved with the outcome of its own efforts to be willing to investigate adequately the operations of the program it has initiated.

Appropriations Committees. One of the most significant places where a measure of oversight activity takes place is in the appropriations process. The budget for an agency must be approved anew each year. One might assume that this yearly appropriations process would lead to a careful annual inspection of the budgets of all the various governmental agencies. This, however, is not the case. The federal budget is so large and complex that it is impossible to consider carefully the budget of each agency and program on a year-to-year basis. What happens instead is that budgets are often routinely approved from year to year with general reviews only occurring periodically. In addition, many agencies develop quite close relationships with the subcommittees of the Appropriations Committees which specifically deal with their agency. These agencies are therefore often able to extract some special favors from these particular appropriations subcommittees.

Government Operations Committees. The Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Governmental Reform were originally established to coordinate congressional concern over governmental operations. Thus, many see these committees as an ideal place for maintaining congressional surveillance over the activities of the vast Bureaucracy located within the Executive Branch. However, because of jurisdictional disputes and because of the reluctance of most representatives and senators to provide for adequate independent oversight activities, the efforts of these governmental operations committees have been quite limited.

Oversight Through Congressional Offices

The three administrative offices within Congress are used to some extent in the congressional oversight process.

The General Accounting Office. The GAO has the responsibility, not simply for performing accounting audits, but also for judging how various programs are being administered. In other words, the GAO often performs the task of program evaluation. In this respect, the GAO plays a significant role in congressional oversight.

The Congressional Research Service. While preparing reports and studies to assist members of Congress, the CRS sometimes includes some information on the activities and performance of various governmental agencies. This is another important source of oversight information for members of Congress.

The Congressional Budget Office. As we have seen, it is the job of the Congressional Budget Office to gather information on the budgets of the various governmental agencies and to report on new budgetary requests and suggestions made through the Executive Branch's Office of Management and Budget. Obviously, such budgetary information is an extremely important source of data upon which the various congressional committees can judge the effectiveness of specific governmental programs.

Although this information gathered by the CBO may seem to allow for significant congressional oversight, the fact is that it is the agencies that often use this informational link for their own purposes in pursuing their requests for additional funding directly to the congressional committee, instead of channeling all their communications through the OMB. This short circuits the use of the OMB as one of the President's management tools..

Effectiveness. From an overall perspective, we can see that these three congressional offices--The General Accounting Office, the Congressional Research Services, and the Congressional Budget Office--combined with the staffs of individual congresspersons and senators and the staffs of congressional committees--are able to supply our national legislators with vast amounts of information and evaluations of governmental activities. In fact, the United States Congress has available to it one of the most extensive research staffs of any national legislature in the world. However, the availability of information and analysis alone is not sufficient for effective congressional oversight. The desire to follow through on this available information is another necessary ingredient--and it is this ingredient which is often lacking.

Many times congressional oversight is limited by the concerns of various congressional committees and subcommittees over their respective jurisdictions. And in a significant number of instances, the pressures of organized special interests also interfere with the ability or desires of members of Congress to significantly oversee governmental operations. Aside from these problems, there are also the limitations of time. Congresspersons are burdened with extremely heavy schedules. They have a large number of often conflicting responsibilities to perform. Representatives and senators must therefor place priorities on the use of their time. Often oversight activities lose in this shuffle of priorities to legislative activities, to the creation of new programs to deal with current problems, and to casework concerns.

Oversight Through Casework

Representatives and senators, themselves, do not usually become directly involved in much casework or constituent services. It is their staff that deals with these matters. However representatives and senators are usually informed by their staffs of many of these problems, and it is through these specific interactions that these legislators often get the most vivid impression as to the effectiveness of many governmental programs. Casework thus provides an important source of direct, specific information which proves very useful in congressional oversight activities.

Some Other Approaches to Oversight

Congress has also passed some major reforms and explored a number of major legislative techniques, many of which have had the effect of improving congressional oversight.

Sunshine Laws. During the 1970s, Congress attempted to open up many aspect of governmental operations to the general public. This was done through the Freedom of Information Act and the "Government in Sunshine" Act. By making information more widely available to the public, these acts also increase the amount of information available to Congress.

The Congressional Veto. Very often Congress passes rather broad pieces of legislation. It is then up to specific agencies to fill in the details of these laws, both with regard to the structure of governmental agencies and the procedures which they follow. One might note for example that while Congress passes general tax laws, the details of the regulations regarding the payment of federal taxes is to be found not in the tax law itself but rather in the Internal Revenue Code which is developed by the Internal Revenue Service, an executive agency.

The problem presented by executive agencies developing a great many regulations or codes is that the only way Congress is able to affect these details is through the passage of new legislative acts. As we have seen, this is often a cumbersome and lengthy process. In order to avoid this, Congress now writes into some authorization bills provisions for a congressional veto. According to this procedure, when an agency promulgates rules filling in the details of congressional legislation, Congress automatically has the power within a specific time period to veto some of these rules and to demand that the agency fill in the details in a different way. The important thing is that Congress can do this without having to go through the process of passing a new law. Although this procedure is rarely used, it does offer the potential for far greater legislative control over the procedures by which the Bureaucracy operates.

Sunset Legislation. In establishing governmental programs or agencies, Congress usually sets no time limit on the functioning of the program or agency. Since the 1970s, however, a practice developed by which Congress authorizes the existence of a program or agency for only a limited amount of time. In other words, Congress specifies a date by which the agency or program will cease to function--that is, by which the sun will set on it. In order for the agency to continue its operations after that time, a new bill must be passed authorizing its continued existence for another specified period of time. This practice is obviously designed to prevent the continued existence of agencies or programs which no longer meet a legitimate need or which fail to meet a legitimate need effectively. A variation on sunset legislation is the procedure of annual authorization. According to this procedure, the continued existence of governmental agency must be approved on a year-to-year basis. While this practice obviously creates tremendous difficulties in the ability of such an agency to engage in long-term planning, it does significantly increase the potential effectiveness of congressional control.

Zero Based Budgeting (ZBB). Zero Based Budgeting is a technique through which administrators must carefully justify their entire agencies' budgets. Zero based budgeting requires a continual top-to-bottom assessment of all agencies' programs designed to insure their cost effectiveness.

The Overall Effectiveness of Oversight

From the foregoing discussion, we see that many structures and techniques have been developed to allow Congress to be more effective in its oversight activities. However, jurisdictional disputes and pressures from various well organized special interests continue to prevent these new techniques and sources of information from being used effectively. As one set of commentators on Congress put it:

So long as Congress attempts to conduct oversight through the current committee and subcommittee system, without serious mechanisms for coordination of oversight activity, the impact of oversight on the executive will probably remain minimal and the congressional committees will probably preoccupy themselves with intra-congressional struggles that leave the bureaucracy broad latitude. [Congress and the Administrative State, p.248].

Thus in many instances, the actual nature and effect of government policy depends less on the actions of our elected officials than it does on the activities of non-elected bureaucrats who often remain totally immune from the pressures of the general public--although not necessarily from those of well organized special interests.

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