What Congress Is Actually Good At

When not pursuing partisan witch hunts, legislators can make surprisingly effective investigators.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Let’s be honest: It’s fun to mock Congress as a pack of self-serving, short-sighted, do-nothing clowns incapable of legislating their way out of a paper bag. It’s fun because, in so many regards, it’s true. Particularly when it comes to funding the government, dysfunction rules--to the point where it’s considered a miracle when lawmakers pass even two or three appropriations bills through regular order before the process devolves into a mishmash of standoffs, continuing resolutions, omnibuses, and/or “minibuses.”

The gridlock only hardens during presidential election years. For months now, lawmakers (especially on the Senate side) have been in acute foot-dragging mode, debating as few bills and taking as few votes as possible before November 8.

There is one part of the job, however, that Congress consistently performs with great gusto: government oversight—a.k.a., vivisecting the executive branch.

Forget negotiating budgets or confirming judicial nominees. These days, lawmakers excel at issuing subpoenas, grilling witnesses, and otherwise probing the administration with a thoroughness that borders on the proctological.

Just consider the endless energy devoted to the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, including the U.S. Ambassador. At last count, upwards of 30 congressional hearings have been held on the attack, involving 10 committees, 250-plus witnesses, and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

It was the Benghazi investigation, in turn, that uncovered Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State. A year and a half in, this spin-off probe shows no signs of dying. The FBI’s recommendation in July not to prosecute Clinton simply gave Congress fresh meat, with Republicans now hammering the bureau to justify its decision. Earlier this month, Representative Jason Chaffetz, the oh-so-media-savvy chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, staged a fancy bit of political theater by issuing a subpoena to the FBI while bureau officials were testifying before his committee. (The whole drama was televised, of course.)

Meanwhile in July, the House Judiciary Committee grilled Attorney General Loretta Lynch about her decision to accept the FBI’s recommendation not to prosecute Clinton. Lawmakers were particularly keen to know what Lynch and Bill Clinton talked about during their private tete-a-tete on a hot tarmac in Arizona the week before the FBI’s recommendation came down.

Not to be outdone, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley has been aggressively digging as well. Last fall, he put a hold on top nominees to the State Department until he received additional information about Clinton’s emails and on whether laws were broken when Clinton aide Huma Abedin was granted special permission to do outside consulting work while at State.

Then there’s the long-running inquiry into the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups. The House Ways and Means Committee has been looking at the issue since 2011; Oversight joined the party in 2013. At this point, conservatives are itching to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. Freedom Caucus member Tim Huelskamp, in fact, has threatened to force an impeachment vote this week-–even after the House Judiciary Committee (looking to avoid a messy floor vote) promised to drag Koskinen in for a formal impeachment hearing on Wednesday.

With polarizing issues like these in the spotlight, it’s small wonder that congressional critics--not to mention congressional Democrats--often denounce committees’ oversight work as exercises in cynical politicking. In February, the conservative National Review took a swing at Chaffetz for wading into the email investigation and opening it up to charges of being a partisan witch hunt. And just last week, the news broke that Colin Powell had called the Benghazi hubbub “a stupid witch hunt” in an email to Condoleezza Rice.

Chaffetz vigorously defends even his committee’s most inflammatory work. “We had one of the largest breaches of security at the State Department in the history of the department,” he told me. “Years of federal records that walked out the door. That has to be fixed. Forget who created this breach.”

Of course, it can be tough to forget the political side of these probes when every so often a lawmaker lets his partisan flag fly--as when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy boasted last September that the Benghazi probe had succeeded in hurting Clinton’s “numbers.”

All of which is a shame. Because while some of Congress’s flashier oversight crusades reek of politics, the committees are in many ways doing the Lord’s work. It’s just that no one hears much about the not-so-sexy, not-so-partisan probes that actually seek to improve government.

“No doubt there have been some abuses by some committees,” said Danielle Brian, head of the independent watchdog group the Project On Government Oversight (more adorably known as POGO). “But it’s unfair to paint them with a broad brush.”

Brian joined POGO more than three decades ago and has been executive director since 1993. Over the years, she has watched Congress lose its “institutional perspective” and become more partisan in its approach to oversight. “They’ve turned into either cheerleaders for the administration if they are in the same party or attackers if they are in the other party.”

The knee-jerk tribalism can turn even legitimate investigations into political circuses, acknowledged Brian. “The best example was Fast and Furious. The Department of Justice was inappropriately withholding information from the Congress, and it ended up becoming a totally partisan inquiry when it didn’t need to be.”

That said, Brian stressed that the bulk of congress’s oversight work isn’t so incendiary and tends to take place away from the cameras. “There are ongoing investigations that are in many cases bipartisan and are very constructive. They are just a little bit too boring for the public to be aware that they’re happening.”

Brian offers up several prime examples. “There was a great bipartisan, bicameral effort in getting a FOIA reform bill passed. And that was not easy.” (Obama signed the bill in June.) “There has been great work in both the House and the Senate into the failures of the VA, resulting in informed legislation about how to change the way the VA operates.” The House Energy and Commerce Committee has been conducting an inquiry into opioid addiction “that is totally bipartisan and hasn’t gotten enough attention.” The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee held “great hearings on whistleblowers and on Iraq and Afghanistan contracting,” while Chaffetz’s Oversight committee has been looking at “reprisals against military whistleblowers.” And in the last congress, “Senators [Levin]* and Coburn did great work on offshore banks and credit card company abuses.”

These probes take place with a clear focus on fixing government, said Brian: “That’s not what the public thinks of when it thinks of congressional investigations. It thinks of the stuff fueling cable news. But that’s not really representative of what congressional oversight is.”

Chaffetz, too, points me toward his committee’s less cable-ready work. “We’re also trying to get postal reform done,” he said, noting that a bill has been passed out of committee and is awaiting scoring by the Congressional Budget Office.  A couple of weeks ago, Oversight released the findings of its year-plus investigation into the data breach at the Office of Personnel Management, and in recent weeks, said Chaffetz, they have been looking into the uproar over steep price increases for common medications like Epipens. “It’s a target-rich environment for us,” he said.

And believe it or not, most of those targets are not named Hillary Clinton.

*This article originally stated that former Senator Coburn had worked with Senator Wyden on a bill involving offshore banks and credit card company abuses. We regret the error.