The Long Decline of Congressional Oversight

And How Democrats Can Bring It Back

An empty speaker's lectern outside the U.S. Capitol, Washington, October 2013. Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

As soon as Democrats captured the House of Representatives last week, the incoming committee chairs began promising vigorous oversight of the Trump administration. They plan to hold hearings, investigate wrongdoing, and propose new legislation. Foreign policy experts welcomed the chance to reverse congressional neglect of international affairs as the leading Democrats on the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Intelligence Committees vowed greater scrutiny of national security. 

Yet the reality is likely to fall short of the hype. Over the last few decades, political and institutional barriers have sprung up that could block any serious review of foreign policy and defense decisions. Despite a daunting array of problems around the world, the 2018 elections turned on domestic issues and disapproval of President Donald Trump. International relations barely registered as a problem in opinion polls, a fact that may diminish enthusiasm for major inquiries. Moreover, the House defense and foreign policy committees will have to compete with other committees for media attention. And they can expect rival inquiries from Republicans in the Senate and vigorous attacks from a president adept at distracting the public and the press from substance.

Oversight is essential to holding the executive branch accountable and educating the public. Good legislation depends on thoughtful review of how governmental programs have performed, and congressional committees are required by statute to review federal agencies. They have staff and subpoena powers to help them do it, but lawmakers tend to prioritize passing bills over conducting oversight. House members usually do more than senators to monitor agency activities and generally step up their investigations when there is a divided government. The potential for heightened monitoring is there, and with legislative gridlock the likely result of continued Republican control of the Senate and the White House, Democrats expect to reap political rewards by focusing on the administration’s actions.

Many commentators point to the flurry of investigations that followed the Democratic capture of Congress in 2006 as a template for action in the next two years.

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