Oversight More Important Now Than Ever

Posted March 18, 2009 at 3:12pm

With the gravity of the multiple crises facing our nation bearing down upon us, Congressional oversight is no longer just an issue of Constitutional responsibility; it is an issue paramount to national security. At a time when funding is tight and challenges both domestic and international seem unlimited, each dollar spent must impact our national strength more effectively and be leveraged to maintain our ability to lead the world now and into the future.

The 111th Congress must rise to the challenge and conduct oversight that is not only more vigorous and thorough, but more properly structured to understand and monitor the security issues of the 21st century.

These security issues are numerous. In the age of globalization, there is no longer a wall separating domestic weaknesses from foreign threats in terms of national security; prosperity and security are inextricably linked. Viewed through this lens, it is imperative that our education system be updated to better prepare students for the global economy, our energy future be steered toward renewable resources that create green jobs, and our financial regulatory system be modernized to monitor corporations before they melt down and spill out over the taxpayers.

Recognizing that government investment can go a long way to fix the economy, the president has proposed a budget that will require major changes in the funding, size and organization of the departments of Education, Energy and the Treasury, just to name a few. In the past few weeks, for example, the education budget doubled, the budget line item for electric car batteries in the Energy Department sits at $25 billion, and American taxpayers are now shareholders in — and unwitting bonus providers to — companies such as American International Group.

In fact, having received close to $180 billion in loans, the bailout of AIG nearly equals the total proposed budgets for the departments of State, Education, Energy and Homeland Security combined.

When did Congress know about the bonuses? Why is the Royal Bank of Scotland receiving money? Congress should have approached this investment the way that a board of directors might, representing shareholder interests and ensuring that taxpayers are wisely invested and recovering costs in the future.

Congress must pursue three goals for more effective and vigorous oversight. First, in order to prevent fraud and abuse, they must roll up their sleeves and work directly with the private sector and local and state officials receiving these infusions of money, from the suites and cubicles of Wall Street to the schools in Philadelphia to the banks in Detroit. Get out in the country with more investigative staff and more field hearings.

Second, they must improve the transparency of the process to better show the American people who precisely benefits from these programs. Were the initial Treasury Department funds (the Troubled Asset Relief Program) a critical investment preventing a worldwide depression or a huge waste of money? Who are the beneficiaries of these policies?

Finally, and most importantly, Congress must serve as an “effectiveness meter— to gauge what works and to identify lessons learned for future programs proposed by Congress and the administration. Failed programs must not be rewarded with continued funding. Successful programs could be replicated in future proposals.

This means that Congress must not only hold a greater number of hearings, but should also reconsider and reformulate the way in which these hearings are formatted. The traditional time allotted for each member, five minutes, is too often used to make a four-minute speech followed by a question targeted to get them a sound bite back home, with the administration witnesses too often reciprocating by deferring the occasional provocative questions to a written response delivered three months after the hearing.

Congress must develop a hearing format that promotes more productive engagement and elicits better long-term information from both sides of the witness table. Most importantly, Members must attend, participate and follow up on these hearings.

Furthermore, when it comes to matters of national security, Congress remains generally stuck in the Cold War posture to deal with the challenges of the nation-state rather than tackling emerging transnational threats, such as failed states and the effects of global environmental crises. This has been underscored by a number of major national security commissions including the 9/11 commission in 2004, the Silberman-Robb Commission in 2005 and the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism in 2008.

Each of these commissions looked at the cross-cutting and nuanced nature of some of the most pressing threats we face, and they subsequently recommended the need for reorganization across the government. Some of this has been achieved in changes to the organization of the executive branch, yet real change has not been achieved in Congress’ own committee structure.

In particular, the 9/11 commission called for the fusing of authorization and appropriations power for the Intelligence committees. The House made initial progress toward this goal with the creation of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel. The Senate, however, has much further to go. I hope the 111th Congress will finally embrace this reform and fully implement this proposal.

Congress is now considering a $3.5 trillion budget. Since the legislative session commenced in January they have approved a $785 billion stimulus bill. Another $350 billion TARP funding bill was doled out to banks, and several additional billions are being considered for further investment in the auto industry and to shore up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Money is flowing through our national coffers like never before. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once called sunshine the best disinfectant, and it is vital that this Congress and administration shine a bright light on the various elements of the economic recovery packages.

Similar to other periods of crisis in our history, Americans have shown a commendable willingness to collectively do what it takes to help our nation recover and move forward. As citizens sacrifice and send more resources to Washington, Congress needs to ensure that each dollar spent by taxpayers today will provide substantial returns for Americans in the future in the form of enhanced prosperity and security.

Tim Roemer is a former Democratic House Member from Indiana and served on the 9/11 commission. He is currently president of the Center for National Policy.