Re-establishing Congress’ strength as an independent, functioning branch of government is a goal easier said than done. Officials and experts alike struggle to propose rubber-hits-the-road solutions — ones that, on a short timeline, are both easy legislative lifts for members and make a material difference back home.
Whether evaluated by the metrics of process efficiency, impact or proactivity, Congress’ powers to check on the judicial and executive branches have atrophied. However, the branch’s oversight function, when undertaken properly, allows members to stretch their Article I muscles in a way that offers high return on investment, both in their districts and on Capitol Hill. Through its oversight capabilities, Congress can begin to recover its power as a democratic institution.
In 2018, the Partnership for Public Service — a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with federal agencies to build a more effective government — compiled several case studies of congressional oversight occurrences that were successfully carried out in productive, solution-oriented ways. Highlighting the work of bipartisan partnerships — such as that of Reps. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., whose oversight brought parity to the benefits of active duty and National Guard servicemen — the Partnership’s case studies are designed to open members’ eyes to oversight capabilities that, although are at their disposal, are rarely used.
The case studies showcase the impact of Congress’ oversight ability when members pursue investigations and reform not to destroy a political opponent or party, but to empower the First Branch. Here are a few of the key findings:
For Congress, taking advantage of agency expertise can help address public needs.
For executive agencies, collaborating closely with Congress can be an effective way to disseminate information and advance policies critical to achieving agency goals.
Continuing congressional oversight demonstrates legislative interest and drives greater agency attention to implementation.
Hearing about issues that have national implications from constituents in their home-state district offices gives members of Congress an opportunity to do quality oversight work.
The case studies are important reminders to congressmen, congresswomen and congressional staffers of how much reform power they have at their fingertips. There are tools at their disposal, including many at the district level, to identify partnership opportunities with members across the aisle and in other branches of government, resulting in outcomes that positively impact their constituents.
Regardless of the political climate and power struggles between the branches, American democracy relies on productive collaboration across the federal government. Empowered congressional oversight is an underutilized means to achieving that end.