Oversight, Insight, Foresight

Timothy B. Clark

That's what we need in our new, divided government.

The dramatic switch in partisan control in the U.S. Congress was on full display in January, as Democrats in the House satisfied their pent-up demand for action on issues such as the minimum wage, Medicare drug pricing and the cost of student loans.

The most compelling drama came in the hearing rooms of committees overseeing military and foreign affairs. Not since 1970, when Sen. J.W. Fulbright, D-Ark., took on the Johnson administration over the Vietnam War, have we heard such a sharp challenge from Congress to executive branch foreign and military policies.

Oversight promises to be the hallmark of the new Congress. Programs and agencies that have seen little scrutiny for years will suddenly be called to account by newly invigorated congressional committees-probably bringing good news for some underfunded domestic programs and troubled times for officials like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The new, activist Congress is fortunate to have, in a supporting role, an activist comptroller general of the United States, David M. Walker, who has offered up two long lists of suggested oversight topics.

His immodest agenda includes a detailed examination of our involvement in Iraq and a 44-page list of topics ranging from the tax code to energy policy, our education system, the sustainability of Medicare and Medicaid, America's image abroad and much more. Walker was my guest at the National Press Club Jan. 17 for a wide-ranging discussion of current issues in government (Read the transcript). He stressed the need for "oversight, insight and foresight," and voiced optimism that the new Congress would be more interested than the old in reviewing many aspects of current government operations. Among his points:

- The entire base of federal government activity, most of it dating to the '40s, '50s and '60s, needs a fundamental reassessment: "Why do we have this? What were we trying to accomplish? How do we measure success? Is it as high a priority as it used to be?"

- As part of sweeping fiscal reforms, "we need mandatory reconsideration triggers for programs that are on autopilot."

- We need to exercise foresight: "What are the emerging trends and challenges that face the United States, its position in the world? How can we try to position the country to deliver positive results, to mitigate risk within available resources?"

- The government needs a strategic plan that the Office of Management and Budget could produce, beginning with management issues attendant to "transformation of government."

- An independent commission should examine key "entitlement, transformation and tax reform issues."

We sent correspondent Kimberly Palmer to find an ancient agency that might be a candidate for the Walker ax, and she found the Women's Bureau of the Labor Department (see story). But, of course, the bureau's defenders are more passionate than those who think it has seen its day.

Tim Signature

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