Hill Power

Increased congressional oversight is great. Productive reform would be even better.

It doesn't seem that long ago that one of the top story lines on Capitol Hill revolved around charges that oversight of executive branch operations was lacking.

In a September 2006 speech at the Center for American Progress, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said, "We've had an imperial presidency and a subservient Congress for the last five years, and the costs to the nation have been enormous. . . . Simply by holding hearings, asking questions and releasing information, Congress can influence the direction of the nation," Waxman said. But, he added, "No matter how big the issue, Congress now looks away."

Waxman and his Democratic colleagues have managed to solve that problem-in spades. As Robert Brodsky reports in our cover story in this issue, since the Democrats swept into power on Capitol Hill in 2006 and Waxman took the helm of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (tellingly, he reversed the key words in the panel's name to put the emphasis on "oversight"), he has held two dozen hearings related to the federal contracting sector alone.

There's a question, though, about just how productive all this oversight has been. Sure, it generates juicy headlines about waste, fraud and abuse. But its central result has been a layering on of more rules, regulations and reporting requirements, all of which could be combining to drive contractors out of the federal market. And, as Brodsky points out, only once since 2007 have lawmakers managed to turn their attention in a hearing to the issue of the federal acquisition workforce, and what can be done to bolster its ability to improve the management of the contracting process.

Legislators seem to have little inclination to take on that kind of roll-up-your-sleeves work to improve government operations. At this point, some observers have all but given up hope that they will do so. As Timothy Clark points out in his Perspectives column this month, erstwhile Government Executive columnist and public administration scholar Paul C. Light has a new book out in which he makes the case for an independent commission to take up the task. The panel, modeled on the military base closing commission, would craft a series of recommendations related to key issues such as contracting, the political appointments process and the organization of government. Congress would then get to hold an up-or-down vote on the proposals.

It would be better if lawmakers weren't relegated to the sidelines of the process. But that might be what it takes to get action on critical management issues the federal government faces.

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