Congressional staff members gather tips on oversight

The halls of Congress had emptied out for the Thanksgiving holiday, but 45 congressional staffers were hunkered down in a nondescript committee room to talk about how to investigate allegations that drug dealers might have bribed Border Patrol agents. Call the newspaper that first reported the accusation? Track down the union for the border-control workers? Find an imprisoned drug dealer who might rat on competitors?

Welcome to what might be called Oversight 101, a bipartisan training class that the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, offers to congressional staff on a periodic basis. With Democrats taking over the Hill in January -- and with their members getting the chance to scrutinize a Republican administration for the first time since 1994 -- the training is among myriad steps being taken in and around Congress in preparation for that oversight role.

From the technicians at the Congressional Research Service to the tacticians at the White House, seemingly everybody in Washington is preparing for a new era of oversight that the Democrats are promising to unleash.

The Project on Government Oversight's pre-Thanksgiving session was its third in a series sponsored by a bipartisan group of members of Congress. Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., Rush Holt, D-N.J., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., signed the "Dear Colleague" letter inviting participation in the November training. One of the speakers at the session was Pablo Carrillo, chief counsel to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee under Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.

Part of the project's premise is that oversight doesn't just happen; people have to do it, and they have to know the techniques for doing it well. Other groups are also offering to share their expertise.

The Congressional Research Service produces a "Congressional Oversight Manual" -- last updated in October 2004 -- that lays out details ranging from Congress's broad legal authority on oversight to investigative techniques as mundane as monitoring the Federal Register.

The CRS is helping the House Administration Committee to design an agenda for a new-member orientation session in January, and is preparing information on the policy problems confronting the next Congress, according to a spokeswoman.

The Government Accountability Office is also gearing up. The GAO gives general introductory sessions for new lawmakers, and conducts sessions on specific topics at the request of current members. "We have done some of that recently," spokesman Paul Anderson said, although he would not elaborate on specific issues.

GAO researchers work on oversight and investigations for congressional offices on a short-term basis. Anderson said that about five GAO staffers are now working on Capitol Hill, and that requests for more help are coming in. Ideally, he said, the GAO would have about 15 people on detail at any given time.

Also offering to help is the very administration that Democrats are clamoring to investigate.

Clay Johnson, the deputy director for management at the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in an interview that he plans to meet with key Democratic committee and subcommittee chairmen beginning in early December to talk about how the Bush administration can participate in useful supervision of government operations.

"My belief about oversight is that it should be constructive not destructive, that [investigators] should be focusing on what we want to be working better, at some point in time and at what cost," Johnson said. "The key is, does any oversight hearing wind up with a clear goal for the future, a charge to the agency involved to develop an implementation plan, and a timeframe for getting to the new desired state of affairs at a [specified] cost?"

At that point, he suggested, OMB could take over the task of tracking and brief congressional staff regularly on the status of the issue, without the need for additional hearings.

Such an offer might not be what Democratic chairmen have in mind. For years, they have argued that the Bush White House has been a primary obstacle to congressional oversight. For example, the administration went to court to preserve its right to refuse to give the GAO information about Vice President Cheney's meetings with energy-industry executives. (The White House won.)

The Democrats' skeptical view is shared by Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the co-author of The Broken Branch, a book accusing recent Congresses of failing to perform meaningful oversight, among other shortcomings.

In the Republican-controlled Congress, Ornstein said, when GAO investigators "would go to agencies and demand information, they wouldn't get it, and you'd have the leaders in Congress backing up the agencies to keep GAO from getting the information." In a Democratic-controlled Congress, "we are suddenly going to see the activation of a sleeping giant known as the GAO," Ornstein said.

Or maybe the administration will become more cooperative. OMB's Johnson suggested that his agency could, in many cases, provide information on the status of a program more quickly than the GAO.

Comptroller General David Walker, who runs the GAO, is making no secret of his interest in seeing Congress become more aggressive. On November 17, Walker offered members of Congress a list of 36 issue areas that would benefit from congressional inquiry, ranging from improving collection of taxes to ensuring that $2 billion in contracts for the 2010 census are properly managed.

Beyond short-term oversight goals like addressing flaws in border control, Walker also suggested that Congress tackle major structural issues in government, such as providing a more integrated approach to responding to catastrophic events and overhauling Medicare and Medicaid to ensure their long-term viability.

"Most of the federal government's current policies, programs, functions, and activities are based on conditions that existed decades ago, are not results-based, and are not well aligned with 21st-century realities," Walker wrote. So Congress, he said, should launch broad reconsideration of those programs.

One reason this kind of oversight has largely fallen by the wayside in Congress over the past decade or so, Ornstein said, is that members have failed to reauthorize major laws. Ideally, Congress would use the reauthorization of a major statute as an opportunity to review what is working and what is not, to make changes, and to provide fresh guidance to the implementing agencies.

But that kind of oversight "has always been tough to do in a sustained way because it is tedious and time-consuming, and doesn't have a lot of political payoff," Ornstein said. The temptation facing Democrats, he continued, is that they will delve into "purely political" oversight designed merely to embarrass the Republican administration. The public is likely to have little appetite for that kind of mudslinging, he said.

But who in the new majority will be responsible for keeping vigorous oversight from running off the rails into partisan grandstanding? Democrats in every corner are expressing their interest in oversight, but the party leadership apparently hasn't yet devised a strategy for coordinating investigations or managing the agenda.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that the incoming majority leader "will give broad deference to the chairmen to set their agenda," with jurisdictional boundaries serving as the organizational plan to ensure that committees do not duplicate each other's efforts.

Similarly, Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that "there is no oversight plan" to control the agendas of the various committees. Pelosi has promised that oversight will be "forward-looking" and that "subpoena will be a last resort," Hammill said. But beyond those ground rules -- and regular meetings of senior staff -- chairmen will generally be left to manage oversight as they see fit, he added.

Although the agenda is a little murky, Democrats clearly are planning to pursue oversight in nearly every available venue, including some venues that do not yet exist. The House Armed Services Committee has already asked Pelosi for a waiver of the limits on the number of subcommittees; such a waiver will allow incoming Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., to re-establish the oversight subcommittee that Republicans folded in 1995.

The day after November's elections, committee member Martin Meehan, D-Mass., wrote to Skelton asking to chair the panel. Meehan even offered an oversight agenda for the not-yet-existent subcommittee, which he does not yet chair. It would cover topics that do exist, such as contracting abuses and the readiness of the nation's armed forces.

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