Does Divided Government Hinder or Help Federal Investigations?


When federal witnesses get hauled before the cameras, it’s sometimes a sign of historic high crimes and misdemeanors and sometimes merely partisan posturing and the shooting of blanks.

Longtime scholar and government reform advocate Paul C. Light set out to determine which of some 100 federal investigations over the past seven decades had high impact and which were duds. “The central question is not whether there will be new issues to investigate or even whether the president will launch a blue-ribbon commission to straighten out some wayward program,” he said in a recent paper drawn from his new book Government by Investigation: Congress, Presidents and the Search for Answers, 1945-2012 (The Brookings Institution and the Governance Institute). “Rather, it is whether, in this era of polarized, divided government, the new investigations will be both done right and done well -- that is with skill and impact.”

Light -- a professor of public service at New York University -- concludes that federal agencies can produce good investigations under divided government.

Carefully laying out his evaluation critieria, Light compares investigations across time, investigatory characteristics and party control, as well as “institutional home” (House, Senate, presidency) and triggering event. Interestingly, the number of investigations has increased since the Watergate era, as has the quality of the probes -- partisan gridlock notwithstanding.

Light’s lists show that the five investigations with the heaviest impact are the intelligence agency abuses (1975); the Social Security crisis (1981); the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (2002); the 2008 financial collapse; and the government reorganization (1947).

Lightest impact probes are President Ford’s pardon of President Nixon (1974); the Wedtech defense procurement decisions (1986); the 1980 “October surprise” (1992); the secret arms shipments to Bosnia (1996); and the White House energy task force (2001).

In singling out investigative leaders who may be more fury than substance, Light, when he spoke Dec. 4 at Brookings, was particularly tough on current House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “I don't think his investigations measure up well compared to high-quality investigations of the past,” Light said. Issa’s investigations “tend not to be particularly thorough. It's not clear where he's going beyond the hunt for visibility.” Overall, Light’s analysis notes six patterns in federal investigations since World War II:

  • Congress remains the “go-to” destination for launching investigations;
  • The House passed the Senate as the most active investigatory chamber after Watergate;
  • Investigations triggered by urgent events such as 9/11 or the banking collapse may have crowded out investigations sparked by routine oversight;
  • Investigations of process failures and personal misconduct may be driving out investigations of policy breakdowns;
  • Many of the post-Watergate investigations were salvage operations that focused on repairing failing programs and ossified agencies; and
  • Investigators may be losing their fact-finding skills.

(Image via Keepsmiling4u/

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.