Congressional Oversight in the 116th

Laura Blessing | March 8, 2019

Congressional oversight in the 116th Congress has gotten off to a roaring start.  After two years of unified government in the Trump administration, Democrats are eager to begin looking into a long list of topics now that they have retaken the House.  The news cycle, already moving at an exhausting pace, now regularly features oversight efforts and a range of potential investigations.  To put all this in context let’s take a look at how congressional oversight works and recent trends in this arena.

The interest in House Democrats’ oversight efforts began well before the first day of the new Congress, with different accounts highlighting the incoming chairs of major committees, and what they were likely to investigate.  While in the minority, these members could do little—the powers of committee chairs for scheduling, issuing subpoenas, and agenda-setting are not shared with the ranking member or other minority members.  Elijah Cummings filed well over 50 subpoena requests for the Trump administration to the Republicans during his time as the Ranking Member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, but could not issue the subpoenas himself.  Cummings was not the only member taking such action in a committee—Republicans kept a list of over 100 such requests as a guide to what might get investigated should the Democrats retake the House.  Of course, other investigations outside of Congress are also of interest to Republicans and the Trump administration.

So where does this flurry of activity fit within the larger environment of congressional oversight?  Firstly, Congress has been conducting oversight from the very beginning, with many different high-profile examples over time.  Members perform oversight in a number of ways, from informal contact with the executive branch, to letters to the administration, to reporting requirements, to writing or vetoing legislation to check the executive, to hearings on appropriations, nominations, legislation or investigations. Congress can also direct other entities to perform oversight, such as studies conducted by the GAO, CBO, or CRS, or by working with the Inspectors General.

Case studies of oversight that identify best practices often highlight that bipartisan, bicameral cooperation, extensive committee work, and building relationships are all hallmarks of effective oversight. Veteran observers of Congress may not be surprised to see posturing in committee hearings. Likewise, more seasoned institutional observers will understand the importance of staff.  In the Michael Cohen hearing on February 27, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s substantive questioning is a good example of utilizing staff, including committee staff, effectively.  Some staff hires by committees have received press attention.

There are a number of more recent oversight trends that anchor this political moment.  The oft-made observation that more oversight happens under conditions of divided government is not new.  This trend pre-dates the rise of modern polarization; scholars Schickler and Kriner have analyses that encompass the 1950s and 1960s, as well, when polarization was low.  What is newer is the concern with the “weaponization” of congressional oversight.  Under conditions of high polarization and divided government, major congressional investigations are resulting in legislation less frequently.  Of course, notable exceptions exist to this trend, and not all congressional investigations have legislation as their goal—for example, if they are investigating wrongdoing by political actors that could be referred to the Department of Justice.

In order to contextualize this current moment of congressional oversight this recent history is important.  The trends above of greater oversight under divided government, and partisan behavior by members continues.  The creation of new committees that will perform oversight is also not new—the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis is part of a long (and varied) tradition.  There are certainly new aspects, as many political norms have been challenged if not altered.  The breadth of topics of investigation is unusual.  Normally a hearing such as the one on Equifax on February 27 would garner a tremendous amount of attention.  But when the Committee on Oversight and Reform hears Michael Cohen’s testimony on the same day, it can be difficult to compete in the media cycle.  The level of involvement of the courts and states on high profile issues is also unusually large.  Finally, this piece largely focuses on congressional hearings as oversight, but it is also notable that the congressional action in response to the President’s emergency declaration is also unusual.

Congressional oversight efforts, and these developments, show no sign of slowing down.  We continue to live in interesting times.




Laura Blessing is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

Categories: Congressional Update, House, Media Center, Revise & Extend, Updates