Does Congress Need a Congressional Oversight Office?

By Adam Chan

Elaine Kamarck’s recent study, “A Congressional Oversight Office: A proposed early warning system for the United States Congress,” describes

1. Congress’ current abdication of its role as overseer of the Executive branch,

2. the structural changes that have produced this abdication and

3. a solution to reverse these damaging trends.

Kamarck usefully distinguishes between two types of oversight: “fire-alarm” oversight (whereby Congress reacts to surprise scandals in a federal agency) and “police-patrol” oversight (whereby Congress engages in anticipatory monitoring). Although Congress continues to engage in “fire-alarm” type oversight, she notes Congress’ declining willingness to engage in “police-patrol” oversight. In particular, she cites a rapid decrease in oversight hearings and redirection of congressional oversight toward partisan objectives. Kamarck summarizes:

“In the modern Congress oversight is one more political tool – used to discredit the current President during eras of divided government or to discredit the previous president. Missing from this is any semblance of ‘police-patrol’ oversight.”

Even though “police-patrol” oversight may present few political rewards, Kamarck contends that it is essential for good governance. She offers a compelling argument that failure to engage in such oversight can only result in greater waste, fraud, abuse and dysfunction, as federal agencies will lack incentives for efficiency and effectiveness.

Even as the Executive branch has grown massively by all metrics (revenue and expenditure, total employees, complexity of function, etc.), Kamarck laments that “Congress has in the name of budget cutting taken steps that have had the effect of ‘dumbing itself down.”’ She shows that Congress’ steady cannibalism of its own resources, driven by pushes to reduce the size of government, has only served to reduce its capacity for oversight.

Summarizing the well-documented deterioration in congressional resources, she describes declining congressional staff (especially committee staff), a shift of staff to district offices and public relations rather than policymaking in DC, increasingly dismal staff pay (which has the effect of deterring experienced professionals from taking staff jobs), and a reduction in the power of committees (which have historically been vital to the oversight process). Kamarck illustrates the decline, both relative and absolute, in Congressional Research Service manpower and financial resources, Congress’ disregarding of the Government Accountability Office’s “high-risk list” of failing federal agencies, and the ineffectiveness of agencies’ inspectors general.

Finally, after analyzing Congress’ numerous woes, Kamarck proposes a solution in the form of a Congressional Oversight Office that would be “staffed by implementation professionals who can gather the signals from all the other oversight organizations annually and in sync with the budget cycle.” Kamarck argues that such an office would be anticipatory and on constant “police-patrol,” rather than simply reacting to fire alarms. Such an office would be continuously overseeing the federal government, searching for areas of future waste, fraud or abuse, instead of simply addressing issues once they arise.

Whether it is realistic, given Congress’ current state, to hope such an agency will be created—much less granted the resources and manpower needed to be effective—is an open question, but Kamarck’s proposal should be taken seriously by anyone concerned with Congress’ abdication of its oversight role.