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.