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An Overview of the Perks and Perils of Congressional Oversight

An Overview of Congressional Oversight
Congressional oversight ensures that the administration follows the will of the people. Here is a congressional oversight, with the help of its definition, history, examples, and much more.
Akshay Chavan
Last Updated: Jan 22, 2019
Did You Know?
Despite its importance in the US government, congressional oversight is not mentioned in the Constitution at all.
The Founding Fathers of the United States wanted to set up a country that was free from tyranny, which granted the people all civil liberties that they deserved. James Madison, who later became the country's fourth president, believed that, to make this possible, the government should be based on checks and balances.
He explains in his political essay, Federalist No. 51, that the government should be split up into different branches which have separate functions, but also keep each other in check.
Articles I, II, and III of the Constitution follow this principle, by dividing the government into the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Congressional oversight is an important example by which these branches limit each other's powers. Let us see how it works.
Definition of Congressional Oversight
Congressional oversight is a power by which Congress (legislative branch of the US Government) supervises the functioning of the executive branch, mostly via its committees and subcommittees. This executive branch includes the president, vice-president, cabinet, executive agencies, regulatory bodies, and intelligence agencies.
The first demands for oversight were raised by some Congressmen in the first years of the US republic, demanding more supervision of the president's fund for intelligence activities.
George Washington
These funds were set up at the request of President George Washington, for intelligence activities to support country's military interests, were the prerogative of the president.
James Polk
President James Polk was accused of misusing these funds to foment a revolution in Mexico and California, so that Texas and California joined US.
While these efforts didn't yield results, Congress succeeded in setting up a committee to investigate the defeat of a US army unit by a tribal confederation.
Congress neglected its supervisory role for more than a century, till post-World War 2 years, when the National Security Act was passed in 1947, establishing the CIA, the country's prime intelligence agency.
Both houses of Congress assigned the task of supervising this agency to their Armed Services Committee, which interacted with the CIA's chairmen and a few senior members on a regular basis. However, for about two decades, Congress appeared somewhat reluctant to actively supervise the agency.
This period of neglect soon changed in the 1970s, with the increasing opposition to the Vietnam War. When the Watergate Scandal exploded in 1972, Congress was at the forefront of the investigation, and ultimately initiated proceedings against President Nixon, resulting in his resignation.
The '70s were marked by more scandals, like a disclosure that the country's agencies had funded revolutionaries in Angola, and spied on Anti-Vietnam War protestors in the country. These events led Congress to take a tough stance against the executive, by using its power of oversight.
Beginning from the Reagan Administration in the '80s, Congress has used oversight as a tool to help the executive function better, rather than simply keep it in check. Barring a few hiccups, like the Administration's supply of arms to Iran in exchange for American hostages in the '80s, this policy of cooperation has continued to this day.
Purpose of Oversight
■ Congress can supervise the activities, programs, and functioning of the executive and its agencies.

■ This power ensures that the executive performs its roles, as defined by law.
■ Congress can check if the functioning of agencies is in agreement with public sentiment.

■ It enables Congress to ensure that the funds allocated by it are being used economically, and for the intended purpose.
■ To ensure efficiency and cost-effectiveness in the Administration, besides preventing malpractices.

■ To supervise the rule-making framework in executive agencies.
Mechanisms of Oversight
► Congress has the power to conduct hearings and investigations regarding the functioning of the executive. Hearings give an idea of how a program is being implemented, while investigations deal with allegations of malpractices.
► Congress has established Inspectors General (IG) in each executive agency, to supervise it and carry out audits. They submit semiannual reports, which the chairman of every agency forwards directly to Congress.
► The Government Accountability Office (GAO) carries out audits and investigations against agencies, and educates members of Congress on better oversight procedures.
► In extreme cases of treason or misdemeanor, Congress is empowered to remove the president, vice-president, cabinet members, or officials of executive agencies, by carrying out impeachment proceedings.
► Agencies are required to submit periodic reports on their activities and programs to Congress for supervision.

► Congress, being in control of fund-allocation, can reduce or eliminate funding for certain executive programs, while increasing the funding to those that need them more.
► Congress can enact laws which set up, continue, or abolish an executive agency or program, besides deciding its composition and operating rules.

► The president, while appointing members of important executive agencies, has to take the approval of the Senate, the upper house of Congress.
► In 1949, after the Senate discovered corruption among top officials of the Truman government, Congress ordered a shakeup of some agencies, and set up a White House committee to investigate further cases of corruption.
► Congress conducted investigations in the 1972 Watergate Scandal, where President Nixon was found guilty of misusing his power to target political opponents. This resulted in Nixon's resignation, and imprisonment of 48 of his top officials.
► In the 1980s, Congress curtailed the discretionary powers of a federal regulatory body, the Environment Protection Agency, by defining strict terms by which it would work.

► Congressional committees discovered the abuse of power by executive intelligence agencies in 1975 and '76, and responded by passing laws to restrict some of their functions.
► In 1987, Congress discovered a secret arms sale to Iran, which was used to fund the anti-Nicaraguan revolutionaries called the Contras; all carried out under the Reagan Administration, despite Congress having banned it. It passed laws to ensure nothing similar happened in the future.
► In 1996, the federal agency empowered with collecting taxes, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), was accused of malpractice, after which it was investigated by a Senate committee. The agency was restructured by the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act, passed by Congress in 1998.
While congressional oversight is not explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution, Congress is assumed to have this power. As to perform its conventional functions, like allocating funds, enacting laws, and impeaching executive officials, Congress needs to know how the executive branch is functioning, which is only possible with the power of oversight.