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Oversight vs. glitzy investigation

Nitty-gritty of congressional vigilance ensures a working government

Oversight of how effectively the executive branch is carrying out congressional mandates is an enormously important function of Congress. Yet in recent years, congressional policy oversight has generally declined as Congress has neglected programmatic oversight in favor of personal investigations - looking at great length at, for example, Hillary Rodham Clinton's commodity transactions or charges of money-laundering and drug trafficking at an Arkansas airport when Bill Clinton was governor.

Since becoming Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert has worked to return the House to performing rigorous policy oversight. I agree strongly with him that the House must focus more attention on oversight of government programs in order to ensure government accountability.

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Oversight is designed to look into every nook and cranny of governmental affairs, expose misconduct, and put the light of publicity to it. Oversight can protect the country from the imperial presidency and from bureaucratic arrogance. It can maintain a degree of constituency influence in an administration. It can encourage cost-effective implementation of legislative programs and can determine whether changing circumstances have altered the need for certain programs.

Based on my experience in Congress, these are 10 lessons I learned about what makes oversight most successful:

*Oversight works best when it is done in as bipartisan a manner as possible. Certainly there will be times when the committee chairman and the ranking minority member will disagree, but they should be able to sit down at the beginning of a new Congress and agree on the bulk of the committee's oversight agenda.

*Policy oversight is aided when there is a constructive relationship between Congress and the implementing agency. Much oversight by its very nature is adversarial, and that is particularly appropriate when an agency has engaged in egregious behavior. But excessive antagonism between the branches can be counterproductive and do little to improve program performance.

*Oversight should be done regularly and systematically. When I served on the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, we recommended that each committee do a systematic review of all significant laws, agencies, and programs in its jurisdiction at least every 10 years.

*Oversight must be comprehensive. There is a vast number of federal government activities that never get into the newspaper headlines, but it is still the task of Congress to look into them. Yet there is such a thing as too much oversight. Good oversight draws a line between careful scrutiny and excessive micromanagement.

*The oversight agenda of Congress should be coordinated to eliminate duplication. The administration often complains, with some justification, about the burdens of redundant oversight and testimony.

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*Continuity and expertise are critical to successful oversight. This is why I generally favor having standing committees perform oversight rather than special, ad hoc committees.

*Follow-through is essential. It's one thing to ask agencies to improve their performance, but it requires the work of members, committees, and aides to ensure changes have taken place.

*Member involvement is important. Certainly much of the work needs to be done by staff. But having Congress members involved brings additional leverage to any oversight inquiry.

*Good oversight requires clear signals from the leadership. Structural reforms and individual efforts by members can be helpful. But for oversight to really work, it takes a clear message from the congressional leadership that oversight is a priority and that it will be done in a bipartisan, systematic, coordinated way.

*There needs to be greater public accountability in congressional oversight. The general public can be a very important driving force behind good oversight. Congress needs to provide clear reports from each committee outlining the main programs under its jurisdiction and explaining how the committee reviewed them.

Conducting oversight is every bit as important as passing legislation. Our Founding Fathers clearly recognized that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

A strong record of congressional oversight will do a lot to restore public confidence in the institution. It will show that Congress is taking its responsibilities seriously and is able to work cooperatively. This is an area in which Congress simply must do better. I'm encouraged by Speaker Hastert's efforts to move the House back to its traditional oversight functions.

*Lee H. Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana, is director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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