03847A_14217: Watergate: Final Reports of the Select Committee

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Developing an Oversight System

To insure that continuing attention is given to building the conduct of administrative oversight into the institutional fabric of the Congress, overall authority for organizing and coordinating performance of the oversight function should be assigned explicitly to the Government Operations Committees of the House and Senate. Through the initiative of its Government Operations Committee each house would consider and adopt a defined oversight agenda at the beginning of each Congress, outlining program priorities to be pursued in oversight activities, committee by committee, during the two-year life of the Congress. The Government Operations Committee would oversee coordination and scheduling of these performance review studies.

In addition, the Goverment Operations Committee should have authority to see that relevant findings from its own investigations, from legislative committee reviews, and from Appropriations subcommittee fiscal reviews are fed into the legislative process and the appropriations process at the right times. Once this more systematic approach to oversight has taken hold, there may be enough business generated to warrant regular scheduling of oversight issues on the floor of the House and Senate once or twice a month.

The assignment of program evaluation studies to the General Accounting Office or requests to the Congressional Research Service to undertake relevant background explorations could also be coordinated throuth the Government Operations Committees. In short, these two committees can be given authority to manage, guide, and coordinate performance of oversight tasks, while also serving as an information clearing house for materials on how the Executive Branch is performing

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in discharging its program responsibilities.

The Panel believes that building such a system of oversight into the regular day-to day operations of the House and Senate will give higher priority to performance of the oversight function. As the system gains acceptance through support from the party leadership and committee and subcommittee chairman, the incentive for individual members to participate actively is likely to grow. The impact of such continuing performance evaluation upon the Executive Branch can also bring important by-products. Congressional demands for regular reporting of program information plus the anticipation of periodic congressional committee review will stimulate agencies to strengthen their own program management and improve internal systems of reporting and performance assessment.

The Panel believes that members of Congress and committee staffs can make more fruitful use of the program audit reports prepared by the General Accounting Office. For example, careful review of these reports by the Government Operations Committees and their staffs should provide insights helpful in guiding coordination of legislative and fiscal reviews. The Congressional Research Service also provides strong research support which can help to sustain significant expansion of congressional review of Executive Branch programs. Finally, the Panel favors continuing attention by Congress to further strengthening its research and analytic capability, since the proposed approach to oversight will severely tax the supporting resources presently available to Congress. Proposals to augment staff and to develop information management resources deserve serious consideration, because they would help to facilitate more systematic surveillance of the

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Improving Access to Information

Effective legislative oversight is also dependent upon the free flow of information within and throughout the federal government. Yet the Watergate hearings offer substantial testimony to suggest that barriers and distortions in that flow have reached an unacceptable level. The claim of executive privilege -- an essential right of the executive -- appears to have been employed to frustrate efforts to seek out wrongdoing. On the other side of the coin, elaborate public relations programs in some agencies blanket Congressional committees with more -- and often irrelevant -- "information" than they can possibly handle, fogging issues and distorting facts in the process.

To encourage more regular and continuing exchange of information among executive and legislative leaders, the Panel urges the revival of an earlier Presidential practice of weekly meetings bringing together the Congressional leadership of both parties in both chambers, the President, and selected members of his staff and Cabinet. Such regular meetings could add an important channel for information exchange among the top executive and legislative leadership. The American system -- with its separation yet sharing of powers -- appears to work significantly more smoothly when there is mutual understanding among the small pool of top political leaders; and mutual understanding flourishes more readily from frequent and regular interaction.

While rejecting proposals for major Constitutional reform

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in the direction of the parliamentary system (see Chapter 1), the Panel did devote serious attention to the feasibility of a regularly scheduled question period as a mechanism for improving information exchange and strengthening congressional oversight. Essentially, such a procedure would involve setting a time when President, Cabinet Officers, and/or other agency heads would appear before the Congress (in a joint session or in one or the other chamber) to respond orally to questions submitted in advance and then to answer follow-up questions from the floor. Requiring the President to appear would necessitate a constitutional amendment. Cabinet officers and agency executive now appear before legislative committees from time to time with generally productive results. In the Panel's judgement such a formal question period would not serve the essential information function nor add an important oversight tool. At best it would become a diverting "side show," and at worst it could produce mischievous results, making or breaking political reputations, often for irrelevant reasons. The Panel, therefore, counsels against trying to adapt the question period to the use of the United States Congress.

Another important aspect of information access is the improved management of information. The heart of the proposed process of congressional oversight is performance evaluation, and the capacity to appraise program performance in turn requires regular and full reporting. As evaluation becomes more systematic and comprehensive, the flow of information will increase exponentially. The Congress must be prepared to handle this information efficiently as an essential step to carrying out administrative oversight honestly and constructively. The growing capability of the GAO and the Congressional Research

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Service in information management is encouraging. But Congress must be always alert to find ways to improve information management; this will require continuing attention.

Finally, Congress must also work to overcome the natural tendency of administrators to try to protect internal operations from outside pressures and influences with the cloak of security. In addition, the Congress may soon reach the point where it needs a specialized legal service (or office of congressional counsel) to press for information denied by the Executive Branch. The task of employing legal processes to gain access to information can of course be handled by counsel to a standing committee. If it develops, as appears likely however, that the courts retain the role which Watergate has thrust upon them of serving as arbiter in information conflicts between the Legislative and Executive Branches, Congress may find that it needs such a specialized legal service to handle a large volume of legal troubleshooting for its standing committees.

A Concluding Note

In its long history the Congress has a mixed record of success in performance of the oversight function. This is fully understandable, for it is an exceedingly difficult responsibility to perform well in an institution which by design is intended to represent many diverse interests. Development of an institutionalized system of congressional oversight as here proposed is a gradual process. It will not spring into being full blown. Nor will it be achieved without a clear and firm commitment to move in this direction, followed by careful nurturing until the benefits of a more systematic approach to oversight become apparent. If the budget reform proposals now

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