Congressional Oversight and the U.S. Government

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Congressional oversight refers to the power of the United States Congress to monitor and, if necessary, change the actions of the executive branch, including the many federal agencies. The primary goals of congressional oversight are to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, and to protect civil liberties and individual rights by ensuring that the executive branch complies with the laws and the Constitution. Derived from its “implied” powers in the U.S. Constitution, public laws, and House and Senate rules, congressional oversight is one of the key elements of the American system of checks and balances of power.  

Key Takeaways: Congressional Oversight

  • Congressional oversight refers to the power of the U.S. Congress to monitor and change, if necessary the actions of the executive branch, including the many federal agencies.
  • The main goals of congressional oversight are preventing waste, fraud, and abuse, and protecting rights and civil liberties.
  • Congressional oversight is one of the “implied” powers granted to Congress by the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution.
  • In empowering the legislative branch of government to oversee the executive branch, congressional oversight forms a key element of the system of checks and balances of power.

The scope of Congress’ powers of oversight extends to virtually all programs, activities, regulations, and polices implemented by the presidential cabinet departments, independent executive agencies, regulatory boards and commissions, and the President of the United States. Should Congress find evidence that an agency has incorrectly applied or exceeded its powers, Congress can pass a law overruling the action or narrowing the agency’s regulatory authority. Congress can also limit an agency’s power by reducing its funding in the annual federal budget process

Oversight Definition

Dictionaries define “oversight” as “watchful and responsible care.” In the context of congressional oversight, this “watchful and responsible care” is applied through a wide variety of congressional activities including detailed investigations of program spending appropriations and re-authorizations requests. Oversight may be conducted by standing and select congressional committees, and though reviews and studies conducted by congressional support agencies and staff. 

In Congress, oversight comes in many forms including:

  • Hearings and investigations conducted by the standing or special congressional committees;
  • Consulting with or getting reports directly from the president;
  • Giving its advice and consent for certain high-level presidential nominations and for treaties;
  • Impeachment proceedings conducted in the House and tried in the Senate;
  • House and Senate proceedings under the 25th Amendment should the president become disabled, or the office of the vice president becomes vacant;
  • Senators and Representatives serving on presidentially-appointed commissions; and
  • Special studies conducted by congressional committees and support agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accountability Office, the Office of Technology Assessment, and the Congressional Research Service.

Powers of Congress: When ‘Necessary and Proper’

While the Constitution does not formally grant Congress the authority to oversee the actions of the executive branch, oversight is clearly implied in the many enumerated powers of Congress. The power of congressional oversight is further reinforced by the “necessary and proper” clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 18) of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power, “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

The necessary and proper clause further implies that Congress has the power to investigate the actions of the executive branch. It would be impossible for Congress to apply its oversight powers without knowing whether federal programs are being administered properly and within their budgets and whether executive branch officials are obeying the law and complying with the legislative intent of the laws. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has confirmed the investigative powers of Congress, subject to constitutional safeguards for civil liberties. In the 1927 case of McGrain v. Daugherty, the Court specifically found that, in investigating actions taken by the Department of Justice, Congress had constitutionally considered a subject “on which legislation could be had or would be materially aided by the information which the investigation was calculated to elicit.”

Statutory Mandated for Congressional Oversight

Along with the necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution, several important laws provide broad mandates for the power of congressional oversight. For example, the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 requires the executive agencies to consult Congress when developing their strategic plans and report on their plans, goals, and results at least annually to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

Perhaps the most impactfully, the Inspectors General Act of 1978 created within each executive branch agency an independent watchdog Office of Inspector General (OIG) assigned to investigate and report on problems of waste, fraud, and abuse to Congress. The Reports Consolidation Act of 2000 requires the OIGs to identify and report the most serious management and performance problems within the agencies they monitor. 

Indeed, one of the first laws passed by the First Congress in 1789 established the Treasury Department and required the Secretary and the Treasurer to report directly to Congress on public expenditures and all accounts.

Congressional Oversight Committees

Today, as in the earliest days of the Republic, Congress exercises its power of oversight largely through its congressional committee system. The rules of both the House and Senate allow their committees and subcommittees to practice “special oversight” or “comprehensive policy oversight,” in issues relating to legislation under their jurisdiction. At the highest level, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, have oversight jurisdiction over virtually every area of the federal government. 

In addition to these and other standing committees, Congress has the power to appoint temporary “select” oversight committees to investigate major problems or scandals within the executive branch. Examples of inquiries conducted by select committees include the Watergate scandal in 1973-1974; Iran-Contra affair in 1987; and the suspected acquisition of U.S. nuclear weapons by China in 1999.  

Famous Examples of Congressional Oversight

Over the years, government officials have been exposed and ousted, major policies have been changed, and the degree of statutory control over the executive branch has been increased as a result of Congress’ oversight powers.

  • In 1949, a select Senate subcommittee discovered corruption within the administration of President Harry S. Truman. As a result, several agencies were reorganized and a special White House commission was appointed to investigate evidence of corruption in all areas of government.
  • In the late1960s, televised hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the so-called Pentagon Papers solidified public opposition to continued U.S. participation in the Vietnam War, hastening the end of the conflict.
  • Less than a year after details of the 1973 Watergate scandal were exposed, the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon resulted in his resignation from office. 
  • More recently, during 1996 and 1997, the Senate Finance Committee investigated and confirmed whistleblower reports from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax collection agents that they had been pressured by their supervisors to harass citizens who claimed they had been wrongly accused of owing unpaid taxes. As a result, Congress, in 1998, passed legislation to reform the IRS by creating a new independent oversight board within the agency, extending the rights and protections of taxpayers, and shifting the burden of proof in tax disputes from taxpayers to the IRS.

    In these and countless other cases, the power of congressional oversight has been essential in monitoring and checking the powers of the executive branch and helping improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of federal government operations in general.

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