Vigorous oversight was the norm until the end of the twentieth century. During the Korean War, a special committee chaired by then Senator Lyndon Johnson strongly criticized the Truman administration....In the 1970s, there were the Church committee investigations of intelligence failures and secret illegal surveillance. In the 1980s, joint congressional committees scrutinized the Iran-contra affair. In the 1990s, authorizing committees and appropriations committees in both houses reviewed military operations in Kosovo. When the Republicans took control of Congress under President Bill Clinton, overall oversight declined....But there were still some visible and aggressive investigations, albeit often driven by an obsession with scandal.Ornstein and Mann focus on how GOP members of Congess have been hesitant to criticize a president from their own party. Indeed, in an era of intense partisanship, the Republican congressional leadership interpreted unified control of the presidency and Congress as making oversight unnecessary. This tendency was bolstered by the emergence of a powerful wartime presidency after September 11, 2001. The consolidation of presidential authority under President Bush following the attacks mirrored earlier eras of executive branch ascendency during wartime. President Bush's power was seen as rivaling that of even Franklin Roosevelt's during World War II.
But since George W. Bush has become president, oversight has all but disappeared. From homeland security to the conduct of the Iraq war, from allegations of torture at Abu Ghraib to the surveillance of domestic telephone calls by the National Security Agency (NSA), Congress has mostly ignored its responsibilities. The same is true of less publicized issues involving the United States and the rest of the world, including U.S. relations with trading partners and rivals, allies and adversaries. The year-and-a-half hiatus in the Republicans' control of the Senate, which came after 9/11 and during a nationwide surge in patriotism, did not noticeably reverse that pattern.
The numbers are striking. Examining reports of the House Government Reform Committee, the journalist Susan Milligan found just 37 hearings described as "oversight" in 2003-4, during the 108th Congress, down from 135 in 1993-94, during the last Congress dominated by Democrats. The House Energy and Commerce Committee produced 117 pages of activity reports on oversight during the 1993-94 cycle, compared with 24 pages during 2003-4. In the mid-1990s, the Republican Congress took 140 hours of testimony on whether President Clinton had used his Christmas mailing list to find potential campaign donors; in 2004-5, House Republicans took 12 hours of testimony on Abu Ghraib.
But the Democrats are ready to flex their oversight muscles when the new session convenes in January. On the oversight agenda are the administration's prewar case for the invasion of Iraq (especially the flawed assessment of Saddam's WMD), the Department of Homeland Security's handing of Hurricane Katrina's rebuilding contracts, and the business practices of corporate America (including prescription drug prices and Halliburton's tenure in Iraq).
The Democrats will need to be careful with their newfound interest in oversight. Hard left activists will be on a vengeful warpath, looking toward congressional investigations as unearthing criminal behavior in the highest echelons of the "Bush war machine." Impeachment has been on the minds of many of the radical left, whose hatred of the Bush neocons knows no bounds. But a focus on criminal investigations would be mistake. Centrists Democrats know that the American people are looking for good government and progress on policy reform, not legal recriminations against the GOP.