Lugar Center Issues New Report Card for Congressional Oversight
Congressional Oversight Hearing Index (COHI) gives nine A’s to House committees, seven F’s to Senate.
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WASHINGTON, DC — A new report card on the oversight performance of Congressional committees in the just-concluded 116th Congress shows a striking disparity: Many “A”s were earned in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, while “F”s predominated in the GOP Senate.
The final grades reflect the hearing activity in 2019-2020 by 34 House and Senate committees as calculated by the Congressional Oversight Hearing Index (COHI) launched by The Lugar Center in May 2020. In the House, nine committees received an A grade, but in the Senate, only the Small Business Committee, chaired by Sen. Marco Rubio (R, Fla.), rated the top grade.
Seven Senate committees got an F for their oversight of the Trump administration’s final two years, while in the House there was only one such failing grade, for the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Richard Neal (D, Mass.). The grades are derived from statistical analysis of committee hearings, not subjective judgments about overall Committee performance.
The data show that the House Democratic chairs, who regained control after the 2018 mid-term elections, set new highs for oversight activity in eight different committees. The two highest scorers in Congress were Rep. Bobby Scott’s (D, Va.) Education and Labor Committee, and the Committee on Veterans Affairs, chaired by Rep. Mark Takano (D, Cal.). The lowest score in Congress was recorded by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson (R, Wis.)
The COHI is the first-ever systematic measurement of how each committee in Congress is performing its vital oversight function. The Lugar Center believes that Congressional oversight is an essential component of American democracy that improves the transparency and performance of our government, illuminates ethical malfeasance within our government or the private sector, and guards against the accumulation of unchecked power in the executive branch.
The study uses congressional hearings as a proxy to understand the committee’s oversight activity. Although hearings are not the only form of oversight, most cases of significant oversight involve or are accompanied by hearings. A thorough examination of the hearing record captures a large percentage of Congress’s most notable oversight efforts.
Each committee’s grade is based on the number and type of open hearings it held during the 116th Congress relative to the activity of that same committee in prior Congresses. Using a searchable database that comprises some 20,000 hearings, the grading system assigns points to all hearings, but gives more weight to those of an investigative nature and those that delve into the administration’s execution of policy and legislation.
The Republican-controlled Senate’s lax oversight of a Republican administration should not be the norm, said Lugar Center Policy Director Dan Diller: “Oversight should not diminish when Congress and the Presidency are controlled by the same party. The U.S. government is an enormous enterprise, and no matter who is in the White House, there is no shortage of topics that would benefit from Congressional scrutiny.”
The COHI is intended to give the public a comprehensive and objective way to evaluate how their elected representatives are performing their jobs. Said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), “Congressional majorities shouldn’t give their own party a pass when it controls the Executive Branch. The Lugar Center’s impressive new database documents when parties do precisely that. If this era has taught us one thing, it’s that when Congress turns a blind eye to malfeasance, it only creates larger problems for everyone.”
In addition to the Homeland Security Committee, other key Senate committees that received failing grades included Banking, chaired by Sen. Mike Crapo (R, Ida..); Budget, chaired by Mike Enzi (R, Wyo.), and Health, Education and Labor, chaired by Lamar Alexander (R, Tenn.). For the second Congress in a row, Sen. Jim Risch (R, Ida.); received an F grade, though he chaired two different committees. During the 115th (2017-2018) he earned an F for the Small Business Committee, and in this Congress, he earned an F at Foreign Relations.
The poor oversight performance of Sen. Johnson’s Homeland Security committee was particularly striking because it includes the powerful Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which has a long history of high-profile, bipartisan probes. (A committee’s grade includes all hearings by its subcommittees.) Yet the Homeland Security Committee only held a fifth of the investigative hearings it typically convened in recent Congresses. Johnson, who has chaired the Homeland Security Committee for three Congresses in a row has received a D and two Fs during his six-year tenure.
By contrast, at a time when small businesses have been devastated by the COVID-19 restrictions, Sen. Rubio’s Small Business committee held a number of hearings to examine their plight and got the top grade (and only A) in the Senate.
In the House, the other committees receiving an A included Appropriations, chaired by Rep. Nita Lowey (D, N.Y.); Financial Services, led by Rep. Maxine Waters (D, Cal.); Homeland Security, under Rep. Bennie Thompson (D, Miss.); Judiciary, led by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D, N.Y.).; Oversight and Reform, chaired by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D, N.Y.) Budget, under Rep. John Yarmuth (D, Ky.); and Natural Resources, led by Raul Grijalva (D, Az.)
In comparing each committee’s oversight performance to the same committee in prior years, an adjustment was made so as not to penalize committees of the 116th Congress for the slower pace of hearings in 2020 because of the pandemic.
The change of party control of the presidency and the Senate will affect oversight dynamics in the coming Congress. But history shows that a high tempo of oversight can be maintained even when the presidency and Congress are controlled by the same party. The highest overall Senate score of the six Congresses in the COHI database was recorded in the 111th Congress (2009-2010) when Democrats controlled the Senate and Barack Obama was President. “The test for Democratic committee chairs going forward in 2021 is whether they will adopt an energetic oversight hearing posture now that Joe Biden is President,” Diller said.