The future of congressional oversight hangs over the 117th Congress. House Democrats introduced bold proposals at the beginning of the 116th Congress, but they were not adopted. While some amount of partisanship in oversight is common, it is imperative for lawmakers from both parties to pursue institutional reforms that incorporate lessons learned from recent oversight challenges, reaffirm the importance of good governance, and bolster our system of checks and balances.
Recent years have demonstrated that traditional and informal congressional oversight mechanisms can be limited in reach and less effective without voluntary compliance from the executive branch. Routine inter-branch information sharing through appropriations, authorizations, and nominations has been strained or lacking. In the breakdown of norms, oversight efforts have become contentious and subject to litigation. The upshot to such significant concerns about government integrity and accountability is that there may now be momentum to enact some of the legislative reforms that Members from both parties have sought over the years. Congress may also find a willing partner in the Biden Administration, which has notably made promoting government oversight and accountability one of its key policy proposals.
Control of the Senate will impact whether Democrats can unilaterally enact various reform proposals or must rely on Republican votes. Either way, it may be most effective for Congress to prioritize proposals that currently or have historically attracted bipartisan support. For example, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress includes thirteen suggestions to “Reclaim Article One Responsibilities” and another seven to “Reform the Budget and Appropriations Process” in its final report to Congress in October 2020. These proposals could make Congress more efficient and effective, so it can better oversee the actions of the executive branch.
Another area where Members from across the political spectrum recognize the need for reform is improving the appropriations process so that Congress can better fulfill this fundamental constitutional duty. Lawmakers do not need to start from scratch here either and can look to previous recommendations, such as those from the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform that met throughout the 115th Congress. We may indeed see the return of congressionally directed spending (or “earmarks”). This would be a response to concern that banning such practices since 2011 has contributed to the erosion of Congress’s ability to oversee government spending by delegating this authority to the executive branch. Such concerns have emanated from both parties, as was evident at the House Rules Committee Members’ Day hearing on Article I in January 2018. The three Democrats who ran for House Appropriations Committee Chair also signaled support for bringing back this practice, though with ample safeguards to prevent corruption and ensure transparency. Such measures include ensuring a program’s requestor and justification are publicly available. The Senate made its earmark ban permanent year, but Senators, including the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee support returning to the practice.
It is evident that the United States is significantly polarized right now with over a quarter of Democrats and Republicans seeing the other party as a “threat to the nation’s wellbeing.” Partisanship also remains prevalent in Congress, continuing a trend that has developed in recent decades. Yet, bolstering Congress’s ability to effectively fulfill its constitutional duties has historically been an area of inter-party cooperation. As this Congress begins it work, lawmakers across parties should prioritize reforms to strengthen government oversight capacity that is necessary to preserve our democratic institutions.