In a series of hearings that have received prime-time coverage and much public attention, Cassidy Hutchinson’s June 28 afternoon testimony contained perhaps the most explosive revelations of all time.
Speaking ahead of a hurriedly convened hearing of the House Select Committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol, Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, revealed that former President Donald Trump has been exposed to the potential for violence. was warned about. At the January 6 rally and still wanted to remove the safety precautions, including the use of metal detectors. She also testified that a furious Trump tried to get his Secret Service driver to control the steering wheel of his limousine to drive it to the Capitol, not the White House, after the rally.
The hearing has provided a carefully crafted description of the events that happened – and happened – on January 6, 2021. Yet despite the revelation and unique content of these hearings, the work of the Select Committee represents only a small fraction of the steady stream Congress oversees every day.
Oversight, broadly speaking, can best be described as the gathering of information that is not directly related to a specific bill under consideration by Congress. In the 116th Congress, which met from 2019 to 2020, the House alone held 405 hearings not related to specific laws.
What is the nature of this less major inspection job? Why is this work important?
‘Police Patrol’ vs ‘Fire Alarm’
Political scientists Matthew McCubbins and Thomas Schwartz classify the illegal actions of Congress as “police patrol” inspections and “fire alarm” investigations.
A “fire alarm” investigation is launched when something specific goes wrong: a protest that turns violent, perhaps; Government’s poor response to natural disaster; Or an agency that gets caught wasting taxpayer money. In these investigations, the job of Congress is to find out what happened and to demand some form of justice on behalf of the American public.
Justice may include the dismissal, resignation or criminal prosecution of a government official. It became most famous after the Congressional Watergate investigation, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and the conviction of three of Nixon’s aides for obstruction of justice.
In addition to this retrospective investigative work, Congress also oversees federal agencies and programs. Like a police car on the road before any actual crime occurs, congressional committees look at what federal agencies are doing to prevent trash, fraud, and abuse before it happens.
Committees accomplish this by continually soliciting documents and testimony from agency officials, and by relying on the work of independent, nonpartisan agencies such as the Government Accountability Office, commonly known as “congressional watchdogs” and the offices of inspectors general. . In some cases, Congress will write into law a requirement that agencies provide intermittent updates on the implementation and success of new programs.
checks and balances
While the power of Congress to investigate is unclear in the US Constitution, the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the legislative branch’s broad oversight powers.
As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in 1957: “The power of Congress to inquire is vested in the legislative process. That power is broad. It includes inquiries concerning the administration of existing laws as well as proposed or potentially necessary statutes.” … It understands investigations into departments of the federal government to uncover corruption, inefficiency or waste.
Most importantly, Congress’ power to investigate is an important part of the Constitution’s checks and balances framework.
Of the three branches of the federal government – the legislative, judicial, and executive – Congress is most closely associated with the American people. By ensuring that the president and the large, vast federal bureaucracy are held accountable for their mistakes by directly elected representatives, Congress prevents the executive branch from becoming too powerful. While Congress also has some authority to investigate the federal judiciary, this is a very rare target.
Additionally, an important and yet often overlooked part of accountability is the process of learning, and then learning practical lessons from past mistakes. Congress’s oversight work looks at government in three dimensions: why things went wrong in the past, how things are going now, and what can be done to make things better in the future.
Thus committees often propose legislative recommendations at the end of investigations. For example, the January 6 Committee may recommend ways Congress can increase the security and legitimacy of US elections.
Congressional committees can focus a full investigation on broad policy issues – anything from the effects of climate change to online sex trafficking to the use of surveillance technology.
This type of inquiry is necessary for two reasons: First, members need to understand an issue in depth before proposing effective legislation. Second, members need to build public support for their particular approach to a problem, and this requires people to understand it.
For example, in January 2019, Maryland’s Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings took over the chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform after the midterm elections returned Democrats to a majority. Many observers expected that his committee – the only one in the House exclusively dedicated to oversight – would launch multiple investigations into the administration of then-President Donald Trump.
Indeed, the committee’s investigators immediately began to look into the White House’s security clearance process and the separation of children at the US-Mexico border, among other issues.
But the committee’s first hearing of a congressional session was not focused on the Trump administration. Instead, it was on a policy issue close to Cummings’ heart: the high cost of prescription drugs. The purpose of the hearing and the committee’s comprehensive investigation, Cummings said, “was to examine the effects of these actions on the federal and state budgets and on American households to enhance the drug companies’ process of drugs.” Among the witnesses was Antoinette Varsham, whose daughter died because she was forced to ration insulin to treat her diabetes.
During Cummings’ 10-month presidency, from January to October 2019, the committee held four hearings on prescription drugs, culminating in five reports on pricing practices at companies such as Novartis and Bristol Myers Squibb. In December 2019, the House with two Republican votes voted Eliza E. Cummings passed the Lower Drug Cost Now Act, and a similar bipartisan law is currently under consideration in the Senate.
And following this investigation, the Trump administration also issued a number of new directives aimed at lowering drug prices for American consumers.
Of course, policy making is a slow process, and change does not happen overnight. But the committee’s drug-pricing investigation not only led to legislative action in the House but also contributed to the administration’s action on an issue that appears to inspire genuine cross-party consensus.
There are many instances in which a congressional investigation produces more immediate and concrete results. In May 2019, the CEO of Transdigm, a defense contractor, appeared before the House Oversight Committee to respond to reports that the company had raised prices and gave the Defense Department US$16 for military aircraft. paid a fee of more than Rs. A week later, Transdigm agreed to return the full amount to the government.
Cummings said: “It’s the solid, bread-and-butter oversight that helps our soldiers and American taxpayers. We saved more money today for the American people than our committee’s entire year’s budget.”