Secrecy News

Reviving Congressional Oversight

“I believe that the first order of business when we reorganize after the first of the year is congressional oversight,” said Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) on November 10 after it became clear that Democrats would control the Senate and House in the next Congress.

“There simply has been no oversight in recent years,” Sen. Reid said.

That of course is an exaggeration. Even on the narrow subject of government secrecy, for example, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT) held multiple oversight hearings over the last two years that substantially enriched the public record.

But it is nevertheless true that congressional oversight atrophied under Republican leadership and that many fateful national policy decisions escaped scrutiny or challenge. That is expected to change as Democrats take charge in January.

New members and staff may need to learn or relearn the tools and techniques of oversight.

Beginning with the basics, the Congressional Research Service explains: “Congressional oversight refers to the review, monitoring, and supervision of federal agencies, programs, activities, and policy implementation.”

More simply still: “Oversight is a way for Congress to check on, and check, the executive.”

A 146 page manual prepared by CRS in 2004 describes the purposes and practices of congressional oversight in detail.

See “Congressional Oversight Manual” (pdf), October 21, 2004.

See also “Congressional Oversight” (pdf), updated January 3, 2006.

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