Friday, November 30, 2012

The Lost Art of Congressional Oversight

Most people probably didn't notice, or it may have passed most people's radar even if they are relatively diligent Congressional watchers, but on Wednesday, something interesting happened on Capitol Hill--a Congressman announced that he would begin doing his job--overseeing the executive agency his committee is supposed to manage.  Florida Rep.Jeff Miller (R), chairman of the House Veteran's Affairs Committee announced that he is ready to up his and his committee's oversight of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.  According to a committee press release:

“Lengthy delays or not responding to requests at all has become the norm,” stated Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “First we were told $20 million was spent in FY2011 on conferences; then we were told it was a little over $100 million; finally we were told that no accurate, reliable figure on conference expenditures exists. Because of these discrepancies, Ranking Member Filner and I asked for clarification of VA’s total conference spending for that year and prior years, as well as a breakdown of all individual conferences, and still have yet to receive any information.”
Miller's specific context is recently provided and widely divergent statemetns of spending on departmental conferenes, which ranged from $20 million, to over $100 million and on Wednesday, the Committee was told that the figure was $86 million.   Mark Tapscott of the Washington Examiner, calling Miller an MVP wrote:

The third VA figure of $86 million was presented at Wednesday's hearing. Miller's exasperation was clearly evident when VA's No. 2 official, W. Scott Gould, couldn't explain the variation among the estimates.
Instead of merely venting his anger, Miller responded to the VA obstacles by declaring, "The truce is over. Expect much more oversight from this committee."
Miller was still fuming after the hearing, telling The Washington Examiner's Mark Flatten that the committee "got the same old crap that VA has been giving us for two years, and I am tired of it." 
Perhaps to remove any doubt about his intention, Miller added that the committee "will be digging in every possible corner that we can for issues that are not being served for the veterans. If you have leadership within the VA that have arrogant attitudes, the veterans are not being well-served."
Tapscott goes on to note that the current VA Secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki, seemed like a man who could clean up the VA, a department that seems rife with mismanagement apparent by its inability to quantify even a basic budget line item of internal conferences.  But even the effective Shinseki seems to have not made a dent.  
You could lay the blame on many different places and Shinseki and his predecessors do indeed to shoulder some of the blame.  But ultimately, the real failing is at the Congressional level.  Almost by necessity (and probably not fully necessary--but that is a subject for another post) Congress has to delegate a lot of detail work to the executive  branch to flesh out the details of legislation.  This process, known as rulemaking, means that Congress needs to be active--truly active-- in their oversight duty to make sure that Congressional intent is carried out.  Of course, Congressional intent may be hard to discern from the actual legislation, which makes oversight even more important.  When rules and regulations are proposed by various executive branch agencies, those rules are subject to review and rejection by Congress under the Administrative Procedures Act.  However, such rejection almost never happens.

Similarly, management of the federal budget--a task clearly and Constitutionally delegated to Congress--is hardly ever exercises after an appropriations bill is passed.  Rep. Miller is responding to an obvious problem, that agency officials cannot even answer basic questions about their budget and as a result Miller is now proposing greater oversight of the VA by his Committee.  While Miller is to be applauded for this, what is truly troubling is that his vow is making news.  

Increased Congressional oversight is not and should not be news.  It is an art and a duty that should be exercised as diligently as possible and as often as possible.  Congressional oversight, if it means that senior executive branch officials are spending twenty, thirty or even fifty percent of their time responding to Congressional inquiries, is not simply "a duty" of Congress, but arguably is "the" duty of Congress.  Take the example of a typical household budget.  That budget and the expenditures made under it have to be reviewed regularly, scrutinized, refined if necessary and certainly altered to fit that actual reality of the situation.  A private company has budgetary review all the time, no matter how big the company is.  However, in the regular effort to be reelected, and the constant campaigning that accompanies that, the lost art of Congressional oversight gets dismissed in the shuffle of campaign events, other duties, and the apparent feeling of trust of executive branch bureaucrats.  

While we want to be trusting of government officials, members of Congress and their staff don't have that luxury.  Congress must be skeptical of every dollar spent.  In the end, only vigilance will save the tax payer money, and only vigilance will keep the government on task.

No comments: