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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann

Last Build Date: Mon, 13 Nov 2006 00:07:36 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

When Congress Checks Out

Mon, 13 Nov 2006 00:07:36 -0600

The two of us began our immersion in Congress 37 years ago, participating in events such as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's extended hearings on the Vietnam War. Throughout most of our time in Washington, tough oversight of the executive was common, whether or not different parties controlled the White House and Congress. It could be a messy and contentious process, and it often embarrassed the administration and its party. But it also helped prevent errors from turning into disasters and kept administrations more sensitive to the ramifications of their actions and inactions. In the past six years, however, congressional oversight of the executive across a range of policies, but especially on foreign and national security policy, has virtually collapsed. The few exceptions, such as the tension-packed Senate hearings on the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib in 2004, only prove the rule. With little or no midcourse corrections in decision-making and implementation, policy has been largely adrift. Occasionally -- as during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last year -- the results have been disastrous. OFF KILTER In October 2005, Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.) reached the 50-year mark for service in the House. Through seven presidents, much of the time as the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, often as the chair of its vaunted Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, Dingell oversaw the executive branch to make sure it acted without bias or malfeasance. He did not shrink from making presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, uncomfortable. At times, even colleagues winced when he grilled bureaucrats. But the result was better execution of policy. Dingell is now a unique figure on Capitol Hill, but he was not always alone. To be sure, the failure to ask tough questions of the military or challenge wartime decisions is neither new to Congress nor limited to Republicans. There has never been a golden era of congressional oversight. More often than not, oversight of foreign policy has taken the form of "fire alarm" hearings, responding to scandals or crises, rather than of "police patrols," designed to prevent problems before they occur. But at one time there was more robust give-and-take, even when the country was at war or when the president and the majority in Congress belonged to the same party. Perhaps the most noteworthy effort was the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, which was created during the buildup to World War II to investigate alleged overspending in the construction of a camp for draftees in south-central Missouri. After visiting the site and talking to the president, in February 1941 then Senator Harry Truman proposed the creation of a special committee. Within a few months, the body had begun a long series of hearings. "At Truman's insistence," the Truman biographer David McCullough has written, "any member of the Senate was welcome to ...take part in the hearing... There was no browbeating of witnesses, no unseemly outbursts tolerated on the part of anybody." In the weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt was urged to try to disband the body. He demurred. The committee produced more than 50 reports, all unanimous, and conducted more than 500 hearings. It is said to have saved the country $15 billion. Vigorous oversight was the norm until the end of the twentieth century. During the Korean War, a special committee chaired by then Senator Lyndon Johnson strongly criticized the Truman administration. According to the historian Bruce Schulman, it also "reduced waste, improved the efficiency of wartime agencies and reaffirmed the patriotism of administration officials -- no trivial matter when [Senator Joseph] McCarthy and his allies saw every small mishap as evidence of disloyalty and subversion." In the 1970s, there were the Church committee investigations of intelligence failures and secret illegal surveillance. In the 1980s, joint congressional committees scrutinized the Iran-contra affair. In the 1990s, authorizing committees and appropr[...]