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Congress' job is to watch over presidents
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I’m as interested as the next person in how Washington will work with Barack Obama in the White House, but there’s an important question that’s been missing. It has to do not so much with the new president as with the new Congress, and it should be high on every citizen’s list of concerns: Will Congress live up to its responsibility to exercise robust oversight over the new administration?
This is especially important given the Democratic label that President Obama and the majorities in the House and Senate will share. During the past two years, particularly in the House, Democrats began to delve into the activities of the current Republican administration. Once their own party controls the White House this will be harder, for obvious partisan reasons: There’s a natural inclination to avoid inquiries that might seem to undermine the president or give ammunition to his political adversaries.
It is vital that congressional leaders set that concern aside, for the simple reason that vigorous congressional oversight of the administration – any administration – is necessary for our government to function properly.
This is, of course, what Congress under our system is supposed to do – put the national interest first by holding the president and his administration accountable. It is Congress’ responsibility, in other words, to ensure that the country is functioning properly and our laws are working as intended, that they achieve the purpose Congress envisioned when it passed them, that resources are being used effectively and that executive authority is being exercised properly.
Congress failed miserably at this task during the last eight years, and even with stepped-up scrutiny since the 2006 elections, it has fallen well short of the ideal: Witness its failure to explore administration plans to deal with threats to the American economy.
Robust oversight need not be adversarial. Indeed, if presidents understand Congress’ constitutional role, they will see its activities as helpful. Constructive oversight brings fresh eyes and insightful questions to policy-making and its implementation. The plain fact is that the executive branch tends to wear blinkers: Its members are there in support of the president, and they are often reluctant to cast critical judgments on his decisions or on the implementation of policy.
This last point is particularly important, since Americans have in recent years lost confidence in government not just because of the policies it pursued, but because of its failure to act effectively, whether in Iraq or in helping Louisiana recover from Hurricane Katrina. A Congress that is functioning properly would turn administration officials into regular visitors to Capitol Hill and make them explain their policy decisions and how they are implementing federal programs.
So what would effective oversight look like? Congress has several tools for holding federal agencies accountable, including periodic reauthorization, personal visits, review by the Government Accountability Office or inspectors general, subpoenas, hearings, investigations, and reports from the executive branch to Congress. The point is to make oversight a part of the daily business of Capitol Hill, and to make it as bipartisan as possible.
There will be times when the Democratic and Republican leaders of particular committees disagree, but they should be able to sit down at the beginning of a new Congress and agree on the bulk of the committee’s oversight agenda. Even more important, for oversight to work, members must receive a clear message from the congressional leadership of both parties that it is a priority and that it will be bipartisan, systematic and coordinated.
For in the end, oversight is not about politics, it’s about the institutional responsibility that Congress bears to ensure that the federal government is serving the American people’s interests. This is even more important in this day and age, as newspapers shrink their Washington bureaus and, with them, their investigative abilities.
In 1787, John Adams wrote of what were to become the House, the Senate and the presidency, “Without three divisions of power, stationed to watch each other, and compare each other’s conduct with the laws, it will be impossible that the laws should at all times preserve their authority and govern all men.” It is as true today as it was 221 years ago, and the start of a new administration and a new Congress is exactly the moment for our leaders to recommit to that ideal.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was in the U.S. House for 34 years.
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