Sunday, September 6, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Oversight Committee

Welcome to the 21st installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies.


Congress is still in recess (until Tuesday), but the committees are coming back to life and scheduling hearings. This week I will be taking a look at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. This is the main investigative committee in the House. While most other committees have the power to conduct investigations, this committee exists to provide another layer of oversight. The committee also has jurisdiction over several specific operations of the federal government and the local affairs of the District of Columbia.

Members

Edolphus Towns of New York took over the chairmanship of this committee after Henry Waxman took over the gavel on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Darrell Issa of California is the ranking minority member. Here are the members of the Oversight Committee:

Democrats: Chairman Edolphus Towns, New York; Paul E. Kanjorski, Pennsylvania; Carolyn B. Maloney, New York; Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland; Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio; John F. Tierney, Massachusetts; Wm. Lacy Clay, Missouri; Diane E. Watson, California; Stephen F. Lynch, Massachusetts; Jim Cooper, Tennessee; Gerry Connolly, Virginia; Mike Quigley, Illinois; Marcy Kaptur, Ohio; Eleanor Holmes Norton, District of Columbia; Patrick Kennedy, Rhode Island; Danny Davis, Illinois; Chris Van Hollen, Maryland; Henry Cuellar, Texas; Paul W. Hodes, New Hampshire; Christopher S. Murphy, Connecticut; Peter Welch, Vermont; Bill Foster, Illinois; Jackie Speier, California; Steve Driehaus, Ohio

Republicans: Darrell Issa, California, Ranking Minority Member; Dan Burton, Indiana; John M. McHugh, New York; John L. Mica, Florida; Mark E. Souder, Indiana; John J. Duncan, Jr., Tennessee; Michael Turner, Ohio; Lynn A. Westmoreland, Georgia; Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina; Brian Bilbray, California; Jim Jordan, Ohio; Jeff Flake, Arizona; Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska; Jason Chaffetz, Utah; Aaron Schock, Illinois

Jurisdiction:

As noted above, this committee is primarily an oversight and investigations body and has a few other roles within the federal government. Here is the formal statement of jurisdiction:

Legislative Responsibilities
The legislative jurisdiction of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform includes the following areas, as set forth in House Rule X, clause 1:

• Federal civil service, including intergovernmental personnel; and the status of officers and employees of the United States, including their compensation, classification, and retirement;
• Municipal affairs of the District of Columbia in general (other than appropriations);
• Federal paperwork reduction;
• Government management and accounting measures generally;
• Holidays and celebrations;
• Overall economy, efficiency, and management of government operations and activities, including federal procurement;
• National archives;
• Population and demography generally, including the Census;
• Postal service generally, including transportation of the mails;
• Public information and records;
• Relationship of the federal government to the states and municipalities generally; and
• Reorganizations in the executive branch of the government.


And here is the section dealing with oversight responsibilities:

Oversight Responsibilities

The oversight responsibilities of the Committee are set forth in House Rule X, clauses 2, 3, and 4.

House Rule X, clause 2(b), provides that the Committee shall review and study on a continuing basis—

(A) the application, administration, execution, and effectiveness of laws and programs addressing subjects within its jurisdiction;

(B) the organization and operation of Federal agencies and entities having responsibilities for the administration and execution of laws and programs addressing subjects within its jurisdiction;

(C) any conditions or circumstances that may indicate the necessity or desirability of enacting new or additional legislation addressing subjects within its jurisdiction (whether or not a bill or resolution has been introduced with respect thereto); and

(D) future research and forecasting on subjects within its jurisdiction.

House Rule X, clause 3(i), provides that the Committee shall “review and study on a continuing basis the operation of Government activities at all levels with a view to determining their economy and efficiency.”

House Rule X, clause 4(c)(1), provides that the Committee shall:

(A) receive and examine reports of the Comptroller General of the United States and submit to the House such recommendations as it considers necessary or desirable in connection with the subject matter of the reports;

(B) evaluate the effects of laws enacted to reorganize the legislative and executive branches of the Government; and

(C) study intergovernmental relationships between the States and municipalities and between the United States and international organizations of which the United States is a member.

And House Rule X, clause 4(c)(2), provides that the Committee “may at any time conduct investigations of any matter without regard to clause 1, 2, 3, or this clause [of House Rule X] conferring jurisdiction over the matter to another standing committee.”


Nearly every other Congressional Committee has oversight responsibility for the parts of the Executive Branch bureaucracy that fall under their respective jurisdictions. This reality makes the Oversight Committee seem redundant. However, there are no guarantees that a particular committee with jurisdiction will vigorously investigate (or investigate at all, for that matter) any given issue.

More to the point, this committee is a protection against out of control Iron Triangles. To seriously oversimplify, Iron Triangles refer to the often too cozy relationships among interest groups (i.e. lobbyists and contractors), Congress (particularly committee members and staffers) and bureaucrats. If a committee gets too cozy with those that they are supposed to oversee, the oversight can suffer. The oversight committee offers another layer of oversight. Here is a graphic showing how Iron Triangles work:

Iron Triangle

Current Investigations

As set forth in House Rule X, clause 4, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform may, at any time, conduct investigations of any matter regardless of whether another standing committee has jurisdiction over the matter. In 1998, Rep. Waxman formed the Special Investigations Division to conduct investigations into issues that are important to members of the Oversight Committee and other members of Congress.


It would be impossible to detail every investigation undertaken by this committee. I suggest checking out the investigations page to see a list of all of the major investigations the committee has handled in recent years. Here are some of the most recent announcements of the committee's activities.

SEC Personnel: Chairman Towns is seeking information about the level of experience of investigators at the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding the investigation of the Ponzi Scheme operated by Bernie Madoff. SEC's Office of the Inspector General reviewed the commission's work on the case and issued a scathing report Aug. 31. The executive summary is available here in .pdf format. The report indicates that SEC could have uncovered the scheme as early as 1992, but inexperienced personnel were assigned to the case and the SEC missed important red flags. Towns points out that a 2002 law gave the SEC the authority to offer higher pay than is usually seen in the federal government to recruit experienced and talented investigators, so he wants to know why key personnel on the case:

had “recently graduated from law school” or had “joined the SEC as his first job out of school.”


Federal Procurement System: An Aug. 7 Washington Post article titled A $191 Million Question: How a relationship between an Army official and a private contractor led to allegations of collusion and impropriety caught Chairman Towns' attention. (And you thought the traditional media had shirked its responsibilities a long time ago.) Towns sent a letter to the U.S. Merit Protection Board requesting information about this matter. This is not exactly a Strongly Worded Letter ™. "Requests" for information from Congress are not to be taken lightly.

This situation is a classic example of an Iron Triangle (though the alternate term "cozy triangle" seems more appropriate). In this instance, a technology program director for the Army and an executive in a military contracting company were very close personally (though he claims they were not romantically involved). In any case, he provided her with information about upcoming contracts, allowing her company to write proposals that all but ensured her company would win the contracts. Even if the government got the best deal for the best price, the situation reeks of impropriety.

Bank of America bailout
: Towns is also seeking documents related to the Bank of America - Merrill Lynch merger likely with an eye on future hearings and investigations. When Bank of America acquired Merrill Lynch at the beginning of this year, BoA's stock prices tanked badly -- within three weeks, the bank's stock price dropped 78 percent. The Treasury Department dutifully (though probably reluctantly) forked over a $20 billion bailout and the American taxpayers are now on the hook for that money. To be sure, this is the latest in a string of investigations into the merger that the Wall Street Journal frankly called "A Deal From Hell." For example, three days before Towns called for the investigation, Subcommittee on Domestic Policy Chair Dennis Kucinich took credit for uncovering bonuses promised to Merrill Lynch executives that greased the way for the merger vote.

There is certainly a whole lot more to this story, but I will leave it at that for the sake of salvaging some kind of brevity here.

Whistleblowers

Have you got a tip about possible corruption in the government? Here is the whistleblower contact information:

Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
U.S. House of Representatives
2157 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
(202) 225-5051

You can also contact them via e-mail through this portal: http://oversight.house.gov/contact/. In addition, there are separate tip lines for general tips; waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars; and steriods in professional sports. You don't even have to include your name.

District of Columbia

From the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8:

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;


That means the federal government was granted the Constitutional authority to run a town. James Madison discussed the need for a separate entity for the nation's capital in Federalist 43 in which he argues that the seat of the government needs to be insulated from the legislative whims of any state that would host the capital.

Initially, the populated areas of the district generally only consisted of the hamlets of Georgetown on the northern bank of the Potomac River and Alexandria on the southern bank. (Alexandria was returned to Virginia in 1846 in a compromise over slavery.) Since the original federal government was envisioned as very limited in scope and the climate was terrible (it was a swamp, after all), few people expected the population to grow very much. However, the government did grow, particularly during the Civil War and later during the New Deal era. This growth, in turn, attracted government workers, special interest groups, and people to actually build and staff all of the things that make a city a city.

Congress continued to directly govern the growing district until 1973 when the Home Rule Act devolved certain powers to the city and provided for a mayor and city council to make local decisions. Regardless, Congress still retains the power to overturn local laws. This committee and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs has jurisdiction over such matters. This is also the reason why the delegate from DC traditionally sits on the House Oversight Committee.

A case in point is the DC council's decision earlier this year to recognize same sex marriages performed elsewhere. Congress could have intervened, and thus touched off a debate that could have either opened the door to overturning the Defense of Marriage Act or conversely banned the practice entirely depending on the votes in Congress. However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Congress to just let the issue slide, thus expanding same-sex marriage rights without actually doing anything.

Dissenting from this decision -- but not getting anywhere -- was Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees the District.:

It’s not something I can let go softly into the night.... I recognize the Democrats are in the majority, but I represent the majority of Americans on this issue.


Well, he did not even get a press release on the minority home page at that time, much less a hearing on the matter.

Oversight under Republicans

This committee certainly can abuse its power. During Bill Clinton's term, the Republican-controlled committee issued 1,052 subpoenas compared to three under the Bush Administration. Put quite frankly:

An examination of committees' own reports found that the House Government Reform Committee held just 37 hearings described as ''oversight" or investigative in nature during the last Congress, down from 135 such hearings held by its predecessor, the House Government Operations Committee, in 1993-94, the last year the Democrats controlled the chamber.


Source

Instead of investing Jack Abramoff, 9/11, Plamegate, suppression of NASA supporting global warming, torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, claims of WMD in Iraq, the Downing Street Memo, and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, Committee Chair Thomas Davis was focused on Terri Schiavo (going as far as to issue a subpoena ordering her to appear before the committee) and steroid abuse in professional wrestling. Committee Democrats were even forced to use a small basement room to discuss the Downing Street Memo.

When Waxman took over the chair in 2007, he followed through with promises to step up oversight.

A note about postage stamps

I'm just putting this one out there. This is from the committee's rules:

Rule 20 -- Subjects of Stamps

The Committee has adopted the policy that the determination of the subject matter of commemorative stamps and new semi-postal issues is properly is for consideration by the Postmaster General and that the Committee will not give consideration to legislative proposals specifying the subject matter of commemorative stamps and new semi-postal issues. It is suggested that recommendations for the subject matter of stamps be submitted to the Postmaster General.


While the committee has the power to govern what images appear on postage stamps, they are refusing to waste their time punting such decisions to the Postal Service. Certainly, commemorative stamps can potentially set off damaging political firestorms over essentially nothing. What if the committee decided, for example, to put out a stamp commemorating the Roe v. Wade decision? The committee (and the rest of Congress for that matter) would be distracted from more important matters by a petty debate over stamps. The message here seems to be, it's somebody else's problem. Here are the 2009 commemorative stamp collections. My challenge to readers: can you detect the pronounced liberal bias going on here (snark).

Subcommittees

The Oversight Committee has five subcommittees to handle relevant business. Each of them also has their own webpage.The subcommittees are:

Domestic Policy:

Jurisdiction includes domestic policies, including matters relating to energy, labor, education, criminal justice, the economy, as well as the Office of National Drug Control Policy.


Dennis Kucinich of Ohio is the chair and Jim Jordon of Ohio is the ranking member. Link

Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia:

Jurisdiction includes federal employee issues, non-appropriation municipal affairs of the District of Columbia, and the Postal Service, including post office namings, holidays, and celebrations.


Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts is the chair and Jason Chaffetz of Utah is the ranking member. Importantly, Delegate Elanor Holmes Norton is a member of the committee. Link

Government Management, Organization, and Procurement:

Jurisdiction includes management of government operations, reorganizations of the executive branch, and federal procurement.


Diane Watson of California is the chair and Brian Bilbray of California is the ranking member. This is the committee that will likely handle that procurement investigation discussed above. Link

Information Policy, Census, and National Archives:

Jurisdiction includes public information and records laws such as the Freedom of Information Act, the Presidential Records Act, and the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the Census Bureau, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

William Lacy Clay of Missouri is the chair and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina is the ranking member. Link

National Security and Foreign Affairs
:

Jurisdiction includes oversight of national security, homeland security, and foreign affairs.


John Tierney of Massachusetts is the chair and Jeff Flake of Arizona is the ranking member. Link

That's it for this week. I'm soliciting suggestions for next week.

For more about other committees, check out my previous work:
Conference Committees
Senate and House Budget Committees
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Senate and House Armed Services Committees
Small Business Committees
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming
The Committee Primer
House Education and Labor Committee
Senate Finance Committee
Senate HELP Committee
Senate Judiciary Committee
House Energy and Commerce Committee
House Ways and Means Committee
House and Senate Appropriations Committees
House Intelligence Committee
House Judiciary Committee
House and Senate Ethics Committees
House Science and Technology Committee
House Financial Services Committee
House Rules Committee
The Role of Committees

This series appears at Congress Matters, Daily Kos, Progressive Electorate, Docudharma, and my own blog.

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