GAO to recommend oversight priorities for next Congress

The Government Accountability Office is preparing a letter to Republican and Democratic congressional leaders outlining suggested oversight areas for the next session of Congress.

Comptroller General David M. Walker said earlier this week that the letter will be based largely on GAO's list of high-risk management issues and its 21st century challenges report, and will be released in November after the midterm elections. Walker said the oversight advice will be the same regardless of which party ends up in charge.

The GAO chief said the current political situation is not conducive to aggressive oversight.

"When one party controls the Senate, House and White House -- and it doesn't make a difference which party it is -- you generally don't have as much oversight," Walker said.

Exceptions to this have been the House Government Reform Committee, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and their subcommittees, Walker said.

If the Democrats take control of one or both chambers of Congress, there will be a division of power that is likely to lead to more hearings, Walker said. "We're going do oversight, insight and foresight no matter who is in charge," he added.

A majority of GAO's work is either to fulfill a legal mandate or to answer a request from committee and subcommittee chairs or ranking members, Walker said. This is due to agency protocols that prioritize requests from committee leaders over those from other members. Performing investigations for committees or subcommittees with jurisdiction over the matter tends to maximize the results of the inquiry, Walker said.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Thomas Mann, co-author of the recently released The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track said he hopes Walker's letter will help leaders of the 110th Congress focus on substantive oversight.

"[Walker] is a tiger and I think the letter is a very good thing for GAO to do," Mann said.

Oversight of the Clinton administration after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 was limited to politically charged investigations, Mann said. Since the Bush administration came to power in 2001, Republican lawmakers -- with the exception of those on the House Government Reform Committee -- have declined to engage in substantive oversight, for fear that it would harm the president politically, Mann said.

Mann said it remains to be seen whether a Democrat-controlled Congress would be able to focus on serious issues or whether it would "blow it by picking up bad habits" and focusing on political investigations.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Mann's co-author, said the GAO letter should serve as a template for oversight hearings and that if the Democrats are in control, GAO is going to be seen in a more positive light.

"GAO can do a few things independently and David Walker is a terrific comptroller general," Ornstein said. "But if you don't have majority leaders who back you up, who use you effectively, who make you their ally and resource for oversight … then [GAO's] role will be limited."

Chris Mihm, the managing director of GAO's strategic issues team, said at an Association for Federal Information Resources Management luncheon Tuesday that Congress must be prepared to conduct oversight across the boundaries of committee jurisdictions. He also encouraged committees to conduct oversight of issues, rather than individual agencies.

Mihm said regardless of which party takes power in January in Congress, he expects there to be more constructive hearings. Citing Mann's book, Mihm said congressional oversight over the past 15 years has been "almost exclusively the gotcha approach."

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