When I hear folks pine for the days of constructive engagement by Congress in the affairs of the executive branch, my instinct is to assume they’re not paying attention. If you peruse the congressional committee calendar on any given week, you’ll see it chock full of substantive oversight hearings.
This month alone, the Senate will conduct hearings on mental health and substance use disorders, reform of the federal budget process, and how to ensure success for the Social Security Disability Insurance program, while House hearings include subjects such as bioterrorism, security gaps in air traffic safety, and preparing for the 2020 census. All raise important issues and seek to make important contributions to improving the performance of the federal government and its programs. Despite constant focus on dysfunction, these constructive oversight activities are the norm.
We lost a giant of congressional oversight this week. Former senator Fred Thompson died on Nov. 1. Though known mostly as a famous actor or perhaps a Watergate counsel, Thompson was also chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee (now Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs). The mission of that important committee was and is to improve the “efficiency, economy, and effectiveness of all agencies and departments of the government.” Sen. Thompson took this mission very seriously. And because I got to work closely with him as a member of the committee’s professional staff, I’ve been thinking a lot about his legacy.
When the Government Accountability Office released its biennial list of programs at high risk of waste, fraud, and abuse, he would hear first from the comptroller general and then haul the leaders of the relevant agencies and programs before the committee to find out what they were going to do about it. And when GAO first tallied program improper payments, he asked every program to do it, producing what’s now a governmentwide effort to measure and prevent this massive waste of taxpayer dollars. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been saved as a result of his focus on the problem.
GAO wasn’t Thompson’s only ally in this regard. Ask agency inspectors general. This legion of taxpayer advocates brought issue after issue before the committee and Thompson was relentless in his advocacy of their independence. They had no better friend than Fred Thompson.
In a compelling piece for National Affairs, my friend and former colleague Tevi Troy suggests that some may be missing the value of the congressional hearing as a “powerful weapon for congressional majorities” to “shape a compelling governing agenda.” To make his point, he tells the story of Thompson’s starring role in the Watergate hearings. Not only did Thompson craft the famous question, "What did the president know, and when did he know it,” but he’s also the figure who queried Alexander Butterfield about the then-undisclosed White House taping system. Simple oversight made a major impact on the history of our nation.
Among the issues that concerned Thompson the most, at least when he chaired the Governmental Affairs Committee, was Americans’ trust in government. It seemed every time you turned around, polls showed declining trust in government. And though Thompson brought attention to government’s shortcomings, he was not insensitive to the impact he was having on the national psyche. His goal was not to diminish government, but to highlight areas that needed fixing so its performance could be improved. That’s a difficult message to get through to the subjects of oversight or the media that cover them. But it was his mission.
Members of Congress, especially those with executive branch oversight responsibilities, have a great example to follow in Fred Thompson. They can, for instance, fill the leadership void – too few pay enough attention to the management of government. They can do their homework – take advantage of the enormous body of work being done to uncover the root causes of government’s management failures. And they can be persistent – government’s challenges won’t be solved overnight and it will take long-term focus to address them.
During his tenure as senator, Thompson gave focus and badly needed attention to issues of government mismanagement that needed improvement. His oversight led to the enactment of government management laws designed to make lasting changes that addressed big challenges. He leaves a proud legacy of defending the precious tax dollars citizens invested in their government.