08/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Congressional Oversight Needed

"Throughout its history, Congress has engaged in oversight of the Executive Branch--the review, monitoring, and supervision of the implementation of public policy. Congress' right of access to executive branch information is constitutionally based and is critical to the integrity and effectiveness of our scheme of separated but balanced powers."

So begins When Congress Comes Calling: A Primer on the Principles, Practices, and Pragmatics of Legislative Inquiry, the Constitution Project's recently released handbook on congressional oversight and the need for full use of that authority.

The Constitution Project has long been concerned with the ever-increasing authority sought by the executive branch, accompanied by a waning willingness by Congress to exercise its constitutional role of overseer to its neighbor on Pennsylvania Avenue. Effective congressional oversight is critical for maintaining the separation of powers established by our Constitution. The checks and balances that result from that system of separation of powers are meant not to serve the interests of any one branch of our government, but those of the American people.

Thus, the Constitution Project was delighted to partner with the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) in sponsoring a panel discussion yesterday at the National Press Club on this troubling and all-too current issue. The event marked the release of two new handbooks: the Constitution Project's When Congress Comes Calling, and POGO's The Art of Congressional Oversight: A User's Guide to Doing it Right.

"It's not a matter of power or authority, it's an obligation," said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma and a member of the Constitution Project's Board of Directors. Edwards emphasized the crucial nature of congressional oversight of the executive branch and spoke about Congress' immense powers, which are sometimes under-utilized. "We have a system in which what we did was take every single major power that had ever existed in the chief executive and put them in the hands of the people directly through their elected representatives. The Congress has the authority - and the sole authority - to decide whether to go to war, what our spending priorities are going to be, what our tax policies are going to be, and who should sit on the Supreme Court."

One of Congress' main tools in exerting its oversight authority over the executive branch is the use of hearings. Chris Shays, a former Republican Congressman from Connecticut, speaking on the panel, told us that "it is a flaw to think that a tough hearing hurts an administration." In fact, Shays went on to say that the lack of hearings by Congress hurt the Bush administration.

As for the current administration's relations with Congress, the Justice Department's Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich is optimistic. "This is an administration that has a deep respect for the legislative branch. After all, the president came directly from the Senate; the vice president spent many, many years in the Senate." Weich underlined Obama's efforts to partner with Congress on key issues such as climate change, health care, and terrorism.

However, Morton Rosenberg, the recently-retired and widely regarded specialist in American Public Law in the American Law Division of the Congressional Research Service, and the author of the Constitution Project's handbook on oversight, thinks we have a long way to go. "The consequence, necessity of continuity, expertise, will, and the understanding and appreciation of institutional prerogatives that go hand in hand in producing successful oversight has yet to be revived."

When Congress Comes Calling is a valuable resource for anyone involved in the oversight process. The Constitution Project will be delivering copies to all Congressional offices, the White House, and federal agencies. We hope our handbook will serve not only as a guide on the subject of congressional oversight, but also as an educational mechanism to restore our nation's system of checks and balances.

To access an audio file of yesterday's event, please visit:

To view a copy of When Congress Comes Calling: A Primer on the Principles, Practices, and Pragmatics of Legislative Inquiry, please visit:

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