The Watchdog Growls

But his appetite should not be feared.

After six years of hibernation, the congressional watchdog is ravenously ready to devour a long menu of savory items. From the dais, it growls warnings to agencies and companies about failure to comply with demands for sustenance. Subpoenas are in the air, and at least one administration witness is pleading the Fifth. Should we fear or welcome the newly wakened dog?

Let's stipulate at the outset that oversight is overdue. For too long under one-party rule, House and Senate committees have had little interest in questioning questionable policies, or exposing flaws in programs. Only when disastrous performance was as plain to see as the trunk of an elephant would Congress pounce, like a chicken on a June bug, on the hapless likes of Michael Brown, scapegoat of the New Orleans hurricane recovery fiasco.

For the past six years, Congress has reneged on its duty to oversee the executive branch, especially on foreign and national security policy. It's not as if there weren't a few things to discuss: misuse of intelligence, the conduct of postwar affairs in Iraq, relationships with our traditional allies, the root causes of conflict, insurgency, terrorism in the Middle East and more.

Domestic programs too have suffered from lack of oversight. Once, congressional committees would hold extensive hearings before recommending new programs and oversight hearings as these programs came up for reauthorization. The process allowed careful consideration of performance and potential improvements. And it helped the legislative and executive branches develop a shared understanding of federal objectives.

This halcyon era is long gone. In Congress, Republican majorities have seen themselves as little more than extensions of the White House during the Bush administration. The explosion of earmarking also conspired to rob programs of integrity, if not purpose.

The new Democratic Congress has made a promising beginning, especially on Iraq and national security matters. It's held more than 100 hearings on Iraq in its first 100 days. But it has yet to show that it will seriously examine the base of federal spending, as it should by revitalizing the reauthorization process. Indeed, agency budgets have been put on autopilot for the balance of the fiscal year.

Agency program managers, especially those devoted to a performance culture, should welcome more oversight, for it can only lend more legitimacy to their endeavors. Where there are problems, exposure can and should lead to corrective action.

Our magazine likes to expose successes as well as problems, and readers this month will find a special supplement devoted to the 63 winners of the 2006 Presidential Rank Award for Distinguished Executives and Professionals. They were chosen last fall, but go barely recognized until an April dinner at the State Department, co-sponsored this year by Government Executive and the Senior Executives Association. Now, with this supplement, their stories will receive the wider notice they deserve.

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