Oversight is Essential – If Done Right
I am a strong believer in oversight. Done correctly, congressional oversight can help all levels of government function better. Midlevel procurement officials are likely to be more vigilant if they know that Congress might challenge the terms of a boondoggle contract. Cabinet secretaries ask more questions and make better decisions if they know that Congress will scrutinize their initiatives. And billions of taxpayer dollars can be saved through exposing wasteful practices.
To fulfill its oversight responsibilities, Congress has far-reaching powers. As the Supreme Court ruled in its 1957 decision Watkins v. United States, Congress’s power to conduct investigations is “broad” and “inherent in the legislative process.” High-ranking government officials, corporate executives and even ordinary citizens must respond when Congress compels them to do so.
Sometimes, oversight can be as effective as legislation — or more so. My 1994 hearings on tobacco — when seven tobacco company CEOs swore under oath that nicotine wasn’t addictive — galvanized public sentiment. It led to far-reaching changes in tobacco policy at the local, state and federal levels.
More than a decade later, the hearings we held on steroid use in baseball had a similar impact, causing sports at all levels to tighten their policies and triggering significant declines in use of these dangerous drugs by teens.
My primary focus as chairman of the Oversight Committee was to protect taxpayers by identifying excessive government spending. The panel identified more than 100 contracts totaling well over $1 trillion that squandered taxpayer dollars or involved significant fraud, abuse or mismanagement. These efforts led to reforms in federal procurement law, improved oversight of government contractors in Iraq and at home and an end to bloated crop insurance payments.
Former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis — my Republican predecessor as panel chairman and the ranking member when I was chairman — was my partner in many investigations. He and I both tried to exercise the vast powers of congressional oversight responsibly. We rarely issued subpoenas, because we viewed them as a tool of last resort — and neither of us used subpoenas without the other’s support or, in rare instances, a vote of the committee.
When this restraint is missing, congressional investigations go awry. In his investigations of President Bill Clinton, former Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton issued more than 1,000 unilateral subpoenas. He made outlandish accusations and then hauled senior officials — including White House chiefs of staff — before the committee for hours of depositions in fruitless efforts to prove them. Ultimately, he had to fire his top investigator for doctoring transcripts and brought the committee into widespread disrepute.
Burton’s mistake was to confuse might with right. Rules he adopted gave him virtually unlimited power to demand documents and testimony — and he used and abused these powers. Burton forgot that the real check on the congressional oversight power is not the courts, which rarely interfere, or the executive branch, which he bullied into submission — but self-restraint and the power of public opinion. His overreaching demands and unfair treatment of witnesses, which often forced innocent officials to spend tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees, became his undoing.
As The Washington Post wrote in its editorial calling for Burton’s resignation, his investigation became “its own cartoon, a joke and a deserved embarrassment.”
Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has at his disposal many of the powers that Burton had. His flurry of unsubstantiated allegations — such as accusing President Barack Obama of running “one of the most corrupt” administrations in history or committing an “impeachable offense” — may garner headlines, but they undermine the committee’s credibility. Good oversight requires hard work, not showmanship.
I hope Issa and his colleagues, such as Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, will recognize that enduring oversight requires sustained commitment and objectivity. It must be fact based, thorough and fair.
But it is well worth the effort. Oversight that is designed to root out waste, fraud and abuse, and make government work better will receive bipartisan support — and make our system of checks and balances successful.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) is ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. He served as chairman of that committee and also as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.