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Does Divided Government Hinder or Help Federal Investigations?

Public service professor finds quality and quantity of probes has improved despite political gridlock.

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/