Congress exercises poor oversight of executive branch, critics say

It may seem obvious that when the same political party controls the House, the Senate, and the White House, the watchdog function of the legislative branch suffers. But many political scientists and other experts contend that in the past few years, Congress's oversight responsibilities have been put into deep freeze.

"The Republican majority has been exceedingly deferential, partly because they believe they have shared fates with President Bush, and partly because they agree" with his policies, said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Every once in a while, you see members saying, 'My God, what are we doing? We're giving authority over the budget. We don't have a clue as to what we are approving.' "

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, added: "Look at defense [policy]. It is clear that we have made some mistakes. We are undermanned. We are spread too thin in the world. Shouldn't Congress be holding vigorous hearings on this, with a lot of attention, wondering what the hell we do now? Are they? No."

Even some Republicans acknowledge that Congress has not done enough policing of the executive branch. "A lot of Republicans don't enjoy oversight--not nearly as much as Democrats--and so therefore, they don't do as much," Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the Senate Republican Conference chairman, said in an interview. "We need to do more."

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks during the first year of Bush's presidency, members of both parties were reluctant to question his policies, either foreign or domestic. The nation was in shock and had rallied around the commander-in-chief, who was enjoying sky-high approval ratings. Yet to this day, many lawmakers still remain reluctant to assert themselves on national-security issues.

In the fall of 2002, Congress granted the president broad authority to use U.S. military force in Iraq. Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who had served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview last year that Congress "has basically given the power to declare war to the president, and, in that way, has fundamentally changed the Constitution." Then, last fall, Democratic and even some Republican lawmakers asked tough questions about Bush's $87 billion request for the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But notwithstanding their venting, lawmakers ultimately agreed to provide all that Bush sought.

As time has gone on, congressional Democrats have become more emboldened to ask tough questions of the Bush administration, yet they usually run into a brick wall. "This is a discouraging time for people who share my point of view," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a relentless advocate of vigorous oversight and the ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee. "But by [Democrats'] raising a lot of the issues, the public does pick up on what is going on," he insisted.

Cynics might suggest that politics has a lot to do with congressional passivity. Back in 1993 and '94, when President Clinton was in the White House and Democrats controlled Congress, the House Government Reform Committee did not issue any subpoenas to the executive branch. But from 1995 to 2000, the Republican-controlled committee issued more than 1,050 subpoenas to the Clinton administration. The panel has issued no subpoenas to the administration since Bush became president.

"Congressional oversight needs to be sharpened," Hamilton said. "Instead of looking into a large number of federal programs, committees tend to focus on investigations that will get more publicity."

Some experts say that aggressive congressional oversight has been declining in some respects over several decades. They point to how Congress routinely allows federal programs to escape scrutiny by failing to reauthorize them. The governing laws for these programs then lapse, but the programs remain in business only because Congress continues them through the must-pass appropriations bills. The result is no accountability in many federal programs.

"There has been a drastic drop in legislative hearings and the kind of review that goes on when programs are reauthorized," said Joel Aberbach, a political scientist at the University of California (Los Angeles) and an expert on the relationship between Congress and the executive branch.

"That, of course, is the most potent kind of oversight, because it is there that Congress, if it is going to do it at all, tends to make the link between whatever problems they may uncover in programs and changes they are going to make," Aberbach continued. "What has happened is that the party leadership has basically seized control of the legislative agenda. Lots of things are done in big omnibus bills."

Aberbach's research shows the declining role of congressional committees. The panels met for a combined 1,281 days in 1997, about half the number of times that committees met in 1975, when they convened 2,552 days. The committees also devoted fewer days to performing agency oversight in 1997 (422 days) than they did in 1975 (459 days).

While Congress's oversight has been lax in recent years, the Bush administration has been especially aggressive in asserting executive powers in the domestic- and foreign-policy arenas. James Lindsay, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the relationship between the executive and legislative branches is cyclical. "The pendulum--the balance of forces between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue--ebbs and flows," he said.

Lindsay noted that in the 1950s and early '60s, the White House also dominated Congress on defense and national-security policy and on many domestic issues other than civil rights. That period was followed, Lindsay said, by a congressional resurgence in the 1970s and '80s. "What we have learned since September 11 is that the Imperial Presidency may have gone into remission after Vietnam, but it didn't die," he concluded.

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