For people who were old enough to remember, there have been iconic moments in Congressional hearings that have changed history, uncovered corruption and improved the way government works. I still remember, as a teen, attending the Watergate hearings that ultimately showed that no one, not even the president, is above the law. It was one of the main reasons I entered investigative journalism.
Others will remember the hearings where all seven of the tobacco company executives lined up under oath to declare that tobacco was not additive, even though science had proved otherwise. That hearing led to the war on smoking that drastically lowered smoking rates, while saving lives of smokers and the people around them that had to endure the health threat of second-hand smoke. The Iran-contra hearings, which showed that the Reagan presidency was secretly negotiating with the Iran government to sell weapons and then use the money to go around a Congressional ban and secretly fund the rebels in Nicaragua, permanently took the bloom off the Reagan presidency. It also exposed the problem of the executive branch selling weapons to banned countries and then using non-appropriated money to fund illegal wars. And one of the most humorous Congressional hearings I ever attended was where Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan), who was chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, stumped the usually smug executives of defense contractor General Dynamics by asking them, "Who is Furston?" They didn't know, but after letting them panic for a few minutes, he informed them that Furston was the dog of one of their executives and his dog-boarding charges had been charged to the Pentagon as a legitimate expense.
I used Congressional hearings to help expose fraud and waste that I uncovered over the years. I worked with Congress to have several hearings in the 1980s that exposed the infamous overpriced spare parts on weapon systems that also showed the huge overpricing schemes in weapons buying as a whole. This helped to lead to a freeze in the Department of Defense (DoD) budget in the middle of the Reagan frenzied military buildup. I also worked with Sen. Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Committee on Aging, to hold hearings on my discovery that hundreds of thousands of nursing home residents were dying from neglect. We proved it by doing a statistical study of nursing home residents' death certificates in California, which showed a shocking number died from preventable malnutrition and dehydration. There was a tightening of the nursing home rules and some other legislation passed, but the main reform happened when the public heard about these shocking statistics through a major Time magazine exposé at the same time as the hearings and the number of nursing home residents began to drop drastically.
Recently, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and The Washington Post referenced a disturbing chart done by the Brookings Institution that showed a dramatic drop in the number of Congressional hearings since 1980. The Washington Post states:
"There was a slight increase in House hearings from 2005-2007, but the total number of hearings are about two-thirds of what they were in the early 1980s. The number of hearings in the Senate has gone down by half since then. And they continued to decline in the 111th Congress (2009-2011), which held 318 fewer committee hearings than the previous one, the report points out." Rep. Coburn wrote an entire report on the decline of Congressional oversight.
Here is the Brookings Institution chart:
The largest drop was during the 104th Congress (1995-1996) when the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress, the first time since the 1950s. I specifically remember that time because a longtime colleague, Peter Stockton, who was the main investigator for the feared Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by John Dingell, decided to retire. I had worked with him for years uncovering numerous frauds in the Securities and Exchange Commission, with defense contractors and the nuclear industry. He had legendary files in the committee of wrongdoing from many corporations, including years of work for hearings that were in the planning. When the Republicans took over the committee, these powerful files were thrown out before anyone could safeguard them, thus freeing the wrongdoing companies and their buddies in the bureaucracies from any fear of being exposed. Oversight hearings on corporate fraud dropped while Republican chairmen began to hold "oversight" hearings on things that they believed could bring down President Bill Clinton, such as Vince Foster's suicide and Clinton's sex life. The Foster hearing bordered on the ridiculous when Chairman Dan Burton said that he went out and shot a pumpkin in the backyard in a way that showed that Foster could not have killed himself, but was murdered.
That is not to say that the Democrats were free of their own abuse of the hearing oversight process. When the House of Representative was controlled by the Democrats for many decades, the long-term committee chairmen grew very powerful and used the damaging information they gathered for oversight hearings to "persuade" their fellow colleagues who were patrons of the wrongdoing corporations to vote their way on legislation, and then quietly abandoned more embarrassing follow-up hearings.
Sadly, it is impossible not to note that Congressional fundraising during this time period also rose. It has become more and more expensive to fundraise enough money to win a seat in the House and Senate. That means each member is required to court powerful money interests, such as corporations and wealthy individuals, on a daily basis. The Federal Election Commission's (FEC) most recent numbers show just how much this trend is accelerating:
The $103.1 million that 82 individual Senate campaign committees raised in 2011 was the highest total ever reported for the first six months in a non-election year, exceeding the previous high of $93.2 million raised in the first half of 2009. In 2005, the last time this same group of Senate seats was up for election, 85 candidates raised $84.8 million during the first six months of the cycle....
Campaign finance reports filed by House candidates for the period January 1 through June 30, 2011, show 420 House incumbents with combined receipts of $151.6 million, a $20.5 million (15.6%) increase from the same period in 2009.
A logical explanation of why true oversight hearings have continued to decline is that there is less and less stomach to hold hearings that would expose and embarrass powerful corporations and individuals who would or could become a steady source of campaign money. So, it is easier to have fewer hearings and hearings on safe subjects such as social issues and to attack bureaucracies that aren't within the political beliefs of the party in power. Meanwhile, as more and more of the federal government is contracted out to major corporations, there is less interest in exposing fraud, waste and abuse in contracting, favoritism in contract selection, and other forms of cronyism such as the revolving door.
There is also a push to cut back or eliminate Congressional agencies that give Congress the tools to do meaningful investigations and hearings, especially when they bring bad news to favored Congressional projects and embarrass the moneyed interests and their Congressman. Bruce Bartlett, who now authors the Economix blog in The New York Times, recently talked about how then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich killed off two Congressional agencies that helped the Congress do oversight when he was elected speaker:
In addition to decimating committee budgets, he also abolished two really useful Congressional agencies, the Office of Technology Assessment and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The former brought high-level scientific expertise to bear on legislative issues and the latter gave state and local governments an important voice in Congressional deliberations.
Bartlett is not a raving liberal; he served in the Reagan and G.H.W Bush administration, worked for Jack Kemp and Ron Paul and worked for the Heritage Foundation in the 1980s.
This trend is continuing as the Congress now contemplates cutting the budget for the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The House is considering cutting a big chunk out of GAO's budget by $50 million even though it has been estimated that, through the GAO's studies, the government gets a 8,700 percent return on investment for the money spent, i.e. GAO saves the government $87 for every dollar in its budget. There is also Congressional grumblings about the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which scores and pokes holes in tax and spending proposals that have been put forth by each political party. If the CBO was eliminated, who would be there to do a Congressional reality check on how much tax cuts or stimulus programs will really help the government and the economy? The Congress would not have the long-term expertise to hear the bad news on plans on flat-rate taxes, 9-9-9, and other pop solutions to our economic problems.
The decline of true investigations and hearings has so atrophied on Capitol Hill that many of the current Congressional staffers really don't know how it was done in the past against fraudulent institutions instead of using hearings to score political points. In an effort to try to pass on the old art of investigative oversight hearings, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has, since 2006, been holding seminars for Congressional staffers on oversight hearings. These seminars bring current Congressional staffers together with past staffers, journalists, and others who walk them through the steps to have a truly effective investigation and hearing on government and corporate corruption. POGO has even produced a manual called "The Art of Congressional Oversight: A User's Guide to Doing It Right." The bad news is that the Congressional oversight function has become so shrunken that a nonprofit organization has to hold classes to show the staff how it used to be done; the good news is that the seminars are often filled to capacity. (Full disclosure: I am the founder of POGO and now serve as treasurer and am on the board of directors.)
So, what are the solutions to this important loss of Congressional oversight? There are some realistic things that can be done and other solutions that may not ever happen until the Congress gets control and reduces the impact of moneyed interests in their campaigns:
First, the Congress must feel the pressure to stop the bleeding on their ability to do fact-based oversight. This means keeping the GAO funding at current or higher levels, which makes monetary sense since it saved so much more than it costs and stop the Congressional attacks and threatened funding cuts on the CBO. so that the people who work there long term through many administrations don't bail out, and Congress loses valuable expertise at a time we desperately need fact-based information on politicians pie-in-the-sky economic solutions. The Congress should think about bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), so that scientific or religious fads don't cripple our ability to use technology to advance our national and economic health. Ironically, Europe copied the idea of the OTA to get a jump on technology, and we killed our check and balance on legislation involving crucial technology.
A harder solution is to increase Congressional oversight hearings on each agency of the government, their money and the corporations that get the contracts and influence the political system. These oversight hearings need to concentrate on institutional and corporate failure and corruption and not be a place for committee chairmen to score political points against individuals and groups that they don't like. Do long-term investigations with the help of the nonpartisan agencies that Congress is threatening to cut. Don't just do "one day wonder" or "drive-by shooting" hearings to get the chairman's name in the paper for a day and not follow up. The bad and lazy guys in government and industry count on no follow up and know that they just have to endure a few days of bad press and then the committee will move onto the next shiny thing that will get them attention.
- And an even harder solution. Although Congressional investigations have been used for over 100 years to go after the other political party (including some important and effective investigations), the moneyed interests have infected both sides of the political aisle and made even good members toadies for corporations and other influential individuals with money. This makes much of the current oversight a weapon to use to help your corporate interest and political party get theirs instead of making government work. Until members of Congress no longer need to raise large amounts of money daily for their campaign coffers, it will be harder and harder to do real oversight. Getting moneyed influence out of politics is a much bigger solution than what is discussed here, but it would free up members of good will in the Congress to do true and effective oversight without worrying that their election opponents won't get more money than they do because they did the right thing. A true sign of a dedicated member of Congress is when they are willing to investigate and hold a hearing on fraud and waste in the executive branch of government that also happens to be headed by a member of their own political party. A few members of Congress have been willing to do that in the past, but I found it very frustrating that many of the investigations of the DoD were dropped in the 1990s by Democrats when it became Clinton's Pentagon instead of the Republican's Pentagon. Blue or red government ineffectiveness and corruption affects us all.
Maybe all we can hope for now is that the Congress, knowing that it is being pressed to the wall to cut some of their favorite pet programs, will be willing to step up Congressional oversight and save money by making the government work better and not letting corporate interests suppress oversight. The new Congress will have its work cut out for it, and if it wants to improve its abysmal ratings over the past few years, they better step up and do their constitutional duty and oversee our money, not election money.