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Don't Be Afraid of the Congressional Oversight Bogeyman

11/09/2010 07:31 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Nick Schwellenbach, Angela Canterbury and Danielle Brian

While many in DC are crying into their beers or measuring the windows of their new offices, POGO has a different take on the election. We have been hearing a lot of talk from both Democrats and Republicans characterizing "oversight" as a dangerous weapon in the wake of the election. But from our perspective, both sides need to take a different tack.

The Democrats need to stop demonizing oversight as something to fear, and the incoming Republican committee chairs and leadership ought to focus on investigating substantive problems with an eye toward finding solutions to benefit the public interest -- rather than gunning for the 2012 elections.

Oversight has clearly been a watchword since the election results streamed in last Tuesday. Incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, has called for "rock solid oversight of the executive branch, which is a constitutional responsibility of the Congress." Republican Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia's 22-point plan as the likely new majority leader has called for more oversight by individual lawmakers.

All of this is music to POGO's ears, assuming the oversight is serious inquires into significant areas, with a good faith effort at bipartisanship.

Of course, some of the Democrat's fears and Republican's embrace of oversight are natural reactions. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition" and our constitutional system of checks and balances was designed to harness these counteracting ambitions. However, congressional oversight of the executive is diluted when members of Congress approach it as political partisans rather than as part of an institution that is responsible for improving the government.

That means congressional Democrats should not be out to protect the administration at any cost and should participate in explorations of wrongdoing, waste, mismanagement or incompetence in the executive branch -- even though Republicans may chair their committees. It also means congressional Republicans should not be out to destroy the administration -- political witch hunts are usually transparent and end up backfiring.

Everyone should keep in mind that underneath the executive branch's political layer are men and women in uniform who've sworn their lives to protect us, scientists who strive to make sure patients are not harmed by drugs or medical devices, auditors who try to protect taxpayer money from going to waste, and others whose job is to serve the public interest. Sabotaging the administration for political gain can sabotage the critical missions these public servants strive to achieve.

But it's important to realize that while sometimes the problems lie with the political appointees, in other instances aspects of the permanent bureaucracy are the problem. What that means is responsible congressional oversight could lead to strange bedfellows. Imagine Tea Partiers working with Obama's political appointees to get rid of corrupt government managers who retaliate against whistleblowers.

At the end of the day, oversight should lead to a better functioning government that better serves the citizenry. On that note, we were heartened when California Republican Darrell Issa, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said, "I want to prove the pundits wrong. My job is not to bring down the president. My job is to make the president a success."

There is a smorgasbord of real issues in need of greater oversight that can help make the government a success. Just for starters, POGO would like to see the new Congress investigate:

There's no lack of scandal in each of these areas, but more importantly, oversight can do a lot of good for the American people, especially if it leads to improvements.

Improving government ethics rules and enforcement, strengthening inspectors generals and other watchdogs, protecting whistleblowers, increasing transparency, and reducing conflicts of interest are just a handful of broad reforms that both sides of the political coin can agree on.

Congress can do some needed reforms of the ways it does business as well. More earmark reform, transparency in deliberations, less partisan procedural maneuvering, and more disclosure of member schedules could help Congress become more accountable to constituents. Congress should lead by example in oversight and accountability.

One thing that didn't change on November 2 -- and hasn't changed in 15 election cycles -- is POGO's passion for investigations, oversight, and reform. As the dust settles on the election and Washington girds for gridlock, we'll keep working with the whistleblowers, lawmakers, and government officials interested in getting some good stuff done.

Schwellenbach is POGO's director of investigations, Canterbury is its director of public policy and Brian is POGO's executive director.

See the original post at POGO's blog.