January 21, 2014
When federal witnesses get hauled before the cameras, it’s sometimes a sign of historic high crimes and misdemeanors, and sometimes it’s merely partisan posturing and shooting blanks.
Longtime scholar and government reform advocate Paul C. Light set out to determine which of some 100 federal investigations during the past seven decades had high impact and which were duds.
“The central question is not whether there will be new issues to investigate or even whether the president will launch a blue-ribbon commission to straighten out some wayward program,” he said in a recent paper drawn from his book, Government by Investigation: Congress, Presidents and the Search for Answers, 1945-2012 (The Brookings Institution and the Governance Institute, 2013). “Rather, it is whether, in this era of polarized, divided government, the new investigations will be both done right and done well—that is with skill and impact.”
Light, a professor of public service at New York University, concludes that
good investigations are possible even under divided government.
Carefully laying out his evaluation criteria, Light compares investigations across time, investigatory characteristics and party control, as well as “institutional home” (House, Senate, presidency) and triggering event. Interestingly, the number of investigations has increased since the Watergate era, as has the quality of the probes—partisan gridlock notwithstanding.
Light’s list of the five investigations with the heaviest impact includes:
Probes with the lightest impact:
In singling out investigative leaders who may be more fury than substance, Light is particularly tough on House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “I don’t think his investigations measure up,” Light said during a December 2013 appearance at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Issa’s investigations “tend not to be particularly thorough. It’s not clear where he’s going beyond the hunt for visibility.”
Light notes six patterns in federal investigations since World War II:
January 21, 2014