Earlier this month, the Project On Government Oversight sponsored the first-ever Oversight Summit, convening experts from nonprofits, think tanks, Congress, and the executive branch to share best practices and strategies for improving oversight of and by the federal government. The Summit featured organizations across the political spectrum working to support meaningful oversight, transparency, and accountability efforts—including Democracy Fund grantees like the R Street Institute, the Levin Center, the Partnership for Public Service, and many others.
As expected, a topic that arose repeatedly was the incoming 116th Congress and its oversight powers and priorities. As is often the case under one-party rule, Congress has not leaned into its role as a check on the executive branch over the past two years. Despite a range of issues crying out for meaningful oversight, Congress largely did not engage, instead giving in to the hyper-partisanship that pervades our political system (though with some exceptions). Congress’ lack of institutional resources has further hamstrung its ability to fulfill its constitutional role to conduct oversight. With a president whose rhetoric and actions fundamentally threaten democratic norms, however, the stakes are high, and the need for effective oversight can no longer be ignored. While the 116th Congress has a full agenda, the incoming House leadership has promised oversight of the executive branch will be a top priority.
At Democracy Fund, we ground our work in a framework of principles we developed to describe the attributes of a healthy democracy. Under that framework, constitutional checks and balances and respect for the rule of law are critical to protecting Americans against abuses of power by their government. Co-equal branches of government and our federal system both serve as checks, and civil society plays a critical role in holding those in power accountable to the Constitution, the law, and the people they represent.
Our framework also emphasizes that political leaders bear an uncommon burden to act with integrity. Their words and actions should reflect democratic values, the Constitution, and the dignity of every individual.
As Democracy Fund’s Betsy Wright Hawkings outlined at the beginning of the 115th Congress, “For those who care about values-based leadership, rules matter—starting with the rule of law. And that is what oversight is—enforcement of the rules.” These principles apply regardless of who holds power.
So how should the new Congress exercise its oversight responsibilities? Some have debated whether the House should aggressively pursue investigations. I think that is the wrong question.
There is no shortage of oversight to be done—the hurricane recovery effort in Puerto Rico; separating children from their parents at the border; government officials using their positions to enrich themselves rather than serve the public good; or foreign attempts to influence our elections. All of this oversight is sorely needed.
Instead, the question is whether the House will ground that oversight in a methodical effort to make our government work better for the American people, or whether Democrats will approach its investigations as an opportunity for partisan retribution. Will the new House majority reach across the aisle—even if they expect to be rebuffed? Or will they go it alone from the beginning? Will they reflexively issue subpoenas, or deploy them as a last resort?
Strong oversight efforts can be aggressive and constructive. As former congressional oversight staffer Kris Kolesnik said during the Oversight Summit, “all oversight begins and ends by putting politics at the door.” The administration should absolutely be asked tough questions by members of Congress—but those members must also remember why they are asking these questions in the first place: to uncover and fix wrongdoing and make our government better, not to score political points.
The importance of this was underscored by Senator Carl Levin, a keynote speaker at the Summit and veteran of countless bipartisan oversight investigations during his decades in Congress. At the Summit Senator Levin awarded the first ever Carl Levin Award for Effective Oversight to South Carolina State Rep. Weston Newton, the Republican chairman of the Legislative Oversight Committee, who has worked across the aisle to make government work better in South Carolina. Rep. Newton explained how oversight should transcend party affiliation: “Whether an agency is doing its job properly or not should not be something that either party has the franchise on asking the questions [about]…nor should the party in power be afraid to ask the questions and expose the shortcomings of those agencies.”
This will take hard work, and unfortunately we know that Congress is under-resourced to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities under Article I—another theme raised frequently during the Summit. That is why Democracy Fund has invested in organizations that provide bipartisan oversight training to congressional staff; help ensure that government actions are transparent to the American people; and conduct their own investigations of government wrongdoing.
Even with these challenges, by all reports the incoming House majority is poised to breathe new life into Congress’ role as a check on the executive branch. Done right, this is a critical component of our democratic system, it will protect against abuse of power, and it will make our government work better.