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House Bill Sets Minimum Oversight Guidelines

By Ed O'Keefe

UPDATE 6:07 p.m. ET: Despite the concerns of some Republican lawmakers and good government groups, the House unanimously approved the bill this afternoon 423-0.

The House is expected to consider a bill today that would require each House committee hold at least three hearings each year on the topic of waste, fraud and abuse in federal agencies and departments.

Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), who has proposed similar measures in the past, wants committees to hold at least one hearing every four months about potential cases of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in the agencies under a panel’s jurisdiction. The bill also requires committees to hold at least one additional hearing per year if a federal government agency’s auditors issue disclaimers in that agency’s financial report. Finally, the committees would have to hold at least one more hearing over the course of each two-year House session if a program's inspector general or the U.S. comptroller general lists it at "high risk" for waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement.

"I’ve always thought that the Congress as a separate and independent branch of the government should exercise oversight over the administration, given the fact that Congress authorizes and appropriates the money," Tanner said in an interview.

"This is a systematic approach to periodically look at where we are. That's the value with this. You could do without it, of course, but this puts it into the rules with a systemic approach, which I think is good."

"We believe that having such a systematic approach to oversight enshrined in the Rules of the House would greatly enhance Congressional oversight of executive agencies’ programs and functions," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, in a letter supporting the bill.

"Inspectors General have no enforcement powers," Brian also wrote. "They cannot force an agency to do anything. If an agency will not fix a broken program, then it is up to Congress to force them to do so."

But others think that Tanner's proposals are unnecessary, since congressional committees hold dozens, sometimes hundreds of meetings each year, with several focused on oversight matters. By one estimate, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its subcommittees held more than 100 hearings last year alone on waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement.

"There’s nothing wrong with setting some minimum standards for this Congress on oversight, but this rules change sets the bar very very low," said Frederick Hill, spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking member on the Oversight Committee. Issa has been pleased by conversations with Oversight Committee chairman Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) about bipartisan oversight of the Obama administration, Hill said.

Some have suggested that Congress should focus instead on proactively stopping waste, fraud and abuse instead at federal agencies instead of holding hearings after the fact.

"You can talk about having congressional hearings, and triggers about when you have congressional hearings, but you have to make sure that your oversight mechanisms actually have the capacity to exercise the oversight," former Transportation Department inspector general Kenneth M. Mead recently told The Eye.

"In our view, this is helpful but it's not the answer, because while there have been oversight hearings, the quantity is not as important as the result," said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "The after-the-fact hearings are not as important." Schatz pointed to a November 2008 Heritage Foundation report that found Homeland Security "reports to 108 committees, subcommittees, and commissions" mostly because "Members of Congress seem reluctant to give up jurisdiction."

Tanner said that requiring committees to hold hearings on "high risk" government programs would help stop future waste, fraud and abuse before it starts.

"Either get them where they’re working as intended or do away with them," Tanner said of such high risk programs. He expects his bill will win enough votes today to pass the House. It will not require a Senate vote since it's an amendment to House rules.

"I can't imagine that a Republican wouldn’t be for this, since we have an Obama administration coming in to town. They weren't crazy about doing it on the Bush side, but I don’t know why any member of Congress would not want to exercise its constitutional obligation."

By Ed O'Keefe  | January 14, 2009; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Congress, Oversight  
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Towns already got two bills passed on increasing transparency....I think it is a good sign of things to come from him and the Oversight committee. Waxman who?

Posted by: charlieharding | January 14, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

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