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Congressional Oversight Crippled By Institutional Anemia, Reformer Says

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Danielle Brian is celebrating her 20th year at the Project on Government Oversight this week.

POGO is one of Washington's most productive and respected good-government groups, and Brian, who has been its executive director since 1993, can look back and take pride in a number of victories for accountability in areas such as cutting wasteful defense contracts, exposing oil and gas industry fraud, and increasing nuclear security.

But one thing she's not celebrating is the pathetic state of congressional oversight

"I've been doing this for 20 years, and it's never been worse," she says. "I know that's actually shocking for progressives to hear because their people are in power and they thought that was going to make all the difference."

And yet oversight is even more anemic now than when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, she says.

It's not so much a question of partisanship, she says, it's a matter of Congress having forgotten its role.

"I really think that what you have now is a complete break from the historical perception within Congress itself that first and foremost it is a separate branch of government," Brian says.

Back in the day, "very powerful Democratic chairmen would have no trouble going after Democratic or Republican administration wrongdoing," she says. "And, at least as importantly, they were aggressive at preserving their power in the Congress to access information from the Executive branch."

But now, she says, "They've become so deferential -- both Democrats and Republicans -- to the Executive branch, especially when it comes to national security, it's appalling."

The more common critique of Congress these days, of course, is that extreme partisanship generally -- and Republican obstructionism in particular -- have rendered the chamber dysfunctional.

And partisanship does play a role in the decline of oversight, she says, with some Democratic members telling their staff not to talk to anyone on the minority staff at all; and Republicans intently focused on making the majority look bad, no matter what the subject.

But Brian says the fundamental problem is that Congress doesn't have the same sense of itself that it used to -- certainly not when brash leaders like Lyndon Baines Johnson were in charge. "They took their power really seriously and they were not afraid to use it."

By contrast, today's Congress is positively anemic -- and terrified. "They're afraid of something. I don't know what it is," she said. Some staffers aren't even sure whether they are legally allowed to speak to officials in the Executive branch. They are.

Congressional oversight isn't limited to holding the executive branch accountable, of course; some of its greatest accomplishments include investigations into corporate malfeasance, such as in the pharmaceutical, tobacco and auto industries.

And yet that kind of oversight, too, seems largely of the past.

The ever-accelerating race for money is certainly a factor, Brian says. "Conducting serious oversight rarely makes you friends with people with deep pockets. In the past that had meant only the truly ‘fire in the belly' Members of Congress got on the oversight committees and subcommittees."

Those Members knew it would neither help them with fundraising nor with pork -- and they didn't care.

"But now, with the extraordinary fundraising pressures, there is little benefit to commit the time it takes to do oversight," Brian says. "And why hold a potential contributor publicly accountable when you want or need their dough?"

In addition to pursuing its own accountability agenda, POGO also trains congressional staff members in effective oversight techniques. "We definitely have developed a little subculture of staff that are into it," Brian says. But when those staffers talk to their members of about restoring the old ways, "their bosses are hostile to that vision of Congress."

One particular sore point for those like Brian who are nostalgic about a more powerful chamber is a 26-year-old Justice Department determination.

"One of the things that I find most discouraging about the Congress is their willingness to allow the Justice Department to determine that if you are not the chairman of a committee, you essentially have to go through FOIA," she says. Most journalists know how time-consuming and thankless a process that can be.

That determination was first made in 1984. Every administration since then has kept it on the books. And yet Congress, which has the ability to rewrite the laws, has never done so.

Where should Congress be focusing its oversight? There are so many fruitful areas that it's hard for Brian to even single out a few.

But one particularly "fun" exercise, she says, would be to look into the self-regulatory organizations (SROs) that let various industries regulate themselves. Most notably, the Securities and Exchange Commission has delegated the regulation of securities firms to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) -- a private entity that receives its funding from the same Wall Street organizations it ostensibly regulates. "What are they doing?" Brian asks. "When did we decide this is OK?"

Another rewarding area for congressional oversight would be the privatization of government, and "the broader question of what's the definition of an inherently governmental function."

Ronald Reagan is traditionally seen as the father of government privatization. But "it was really Clinton and Gore who embraced it," Brian says. Then, after the 9/11 terror attacks, there was huge growth in private security contractors and outsourced intelligence services.

"What you have is an assumption, that was never tested, that it was cheaper and more effective to turn to the private sector to do as much as possible of what the government was doing," Brian says. Meanwhile, there's been insufficient consideration of "the impact of allowing entities whose legal loyalty has to be to their shareholders and the profit, rather than a public-minded entity that is devoted to the public good."

None of this is to say that Brian thinks there hasn't been any good congressional oversight at all lately.

There have been some great moments in recent years, including investigations led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) into corrupt superlobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Boeing Tanker Lease; and investigations by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that made Blackwater and Halliburton household names.

Brian has high praise for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and his continued vigilance of the pharmaceutical industry. She thinks the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chaired by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) "has done an amazing job" in its recent three-part hearings on Washington Mutual, the ratings agencies and Goldman Sachs.

And just this week, POGO was contacted by both the Democrats and the Republicans on the House government reform committee regarding the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Department of Interior Minerals Management Service's role in failing to adequately oversee the industry.

"So," Brian says, heading into her 21st year fighting for good government, "there is hope!"

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Dan Froomkin is Senior Washington Correspondent for the Huffington Post, and also Deputy Editor of NiemanWatchdog.org, where this post first appeared.

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