THE BLOG
02/17/2008 05:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Oversight in the Internet Era

Should an electoral tidal wave engulf Republicans in this year's
Congressional elections, Scot Faulkner's 2008 book Naked Emperors: The
Failure of the Republican Revolution
likely will become required
reading for activists as they stage the expected turnaround attempt
that occurs every 4 to 8 years. But the points made by my friend Scot
Faulkner about the failure of Congressional and Executive Branch
oversight are totally applicable to both parties, signaling the
potential for deep disappointment in failing to overcome many
challenges unless the changes he recommends take root.

America's House of Representatives, Senate and the Executive Branch
have been held up around the world as beacons of freedom, democracy
and good governance. But Faulkner's insider's account paints a
less-than-flattering picture, of sausage being made, mostly
unsuccessfully, amid zipper-problems and ego trips.

Faulkner, a "Reaganite" has since been working for both party
candidates in local campaigns, and offers a wealth of information and
perspective on the near-absence of oversight, the perfunctory hearings
with canned questions and even more canned and sometimes
made-for-CSPAN answers. The book perceptively captures the dismay
many feel about the listless oversight in the Congress during the
leadership of both parties, and many in the Executive Branch most keen
for business-as-usual. So how can huge challenges like ensuring
affordable access to health care, reforming social security,
overcoming the recession, the sub-prime lending crisis etc. be managed
with those weak 18th century instruments for 21st century problems.
That is the crux of the fascinating overview provided by Faulkner, who
was the first Chief Administrative Officer of the US House of
Representatives, until his self-described hounding out. The book's
diagnosis is that the probability of major change/reform is miniscule.
Towards the end, Faulkner offers suggestions for reform, including
electronic means of oversight.

Recent experience with oversight of US contributions to multilaterals
can be the backdrop of Faulkner's systemic discussion. Massive
corruption in projects running into the hundreds of millions of
dollars, provision of substandard medical products to patients, and
other documented theft were featured in thousands of newspapers around
the world.

Those highlight the stalled state of institutional reform and
oversight on structures to combat corruption. The annual $1 billion
US contribution to the World Bank Group, for instance, involves the US
Treasury but there have been a series of managerial changes at
Assistant Secretary and Under Secretary level during the past 8 years
with no one apparently having had any interest in multilateral
institution reform since then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. In the
Congress, oversight is by the Appropriations Foreign Operations
Sub-Committees that is chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy. Because he
also chairs the Judiciary Committee, Senator Leahy logically would be
the person to exercise oversight and schedule a hearing, but no
hearing on such matters appears to have been held since a session in
1998, when a General Accountability Office
report was commissioned by
Senator Leahy, Senator Mitch McConnell, now the Republican Leader, and
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the current Speaker of the US House of
Representatives. But thereafter, none of them appears to have
followed-up.

When he was the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
Senator Lugar held several hearings until 2005 in which some estimates
were presented that corruption may amount to as large a figure as $100
billion. Later, amid Senate approval and widespread media praise,
Senator Evan Bayh, a much acclaimed potential Democratic
Vice-Presidential candidate and key Banking Sub-Committee Chair,
publicly sought a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on the
World Bank -- "independent assessment to gauge the impact of corruption
on international development assistance" -- and the Senate voted 81-12
for the version that included it.

But when the final Appropriations bill was passed and signed into law, it did not include
the study since it had been eliminated, and a Director at the GAO,
which is the investigative arm of the US Congress, confirmed to me in
writing that the study had indeed not been part of the final bill and
hence would not be conducted.

Thus, the current klieg-lights and CSPAN culture may be, at best, only
one component of comprehensive oversight, and may hardly be
representative of the Internet era. In view of those limitations and
constraints on old-fashioned oversight, the Blog has begun to help secure a voice in
oversight. Such initiatives, in addition to boosting Congressional
and Executive Branch oversight, can help in learning across many
boundaries, especially on foreign affairs and foreign assistance, now
among the leading issues in every presidential campaign, and can also
add to the insights needed for wiser policy decisions and managerial
change.

Read more about Scot Faulkner's book here or at his website.