CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT OF THE EXECUTIVE

Congressional oversight -- the review, monitoring, and supervision of the executive and the implementation of public policy -- is an important part of legislative-executive relations. Oversight is often adversarial and critical. For instance, congressional panels may conduct investigations, hold public hearings, require reports from the executive, or commission a study in reaction to complaints, criticisms, opposition, or abuses surrounding a program, operation, agency, or official. Oversight, however, can be supportive, as, for instance, when it helps to bolster a program or agency threatened by budget cuts or to prevent another agency from intruding on its domain or mission.

The importance of oversight for democratic government and the legislature's responsibilities has been noted by authorities on United States government and other democratic regimes. No one gave it a higher standing than John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher. Discussing the integral function of all representative assemblies, from town councils to national parliaments, Mill wrote: ``. . . the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government; to throw the light of publicity on its acts; to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which any one considers questionable; to censure them if found condemnable, and, if the men who compose the government abuse their trust . . . to expel them from office, and either expressly or virtually appoint their successors.''5

Woodrow Wilson echoed the same sentiment for Congress as a whole. Describing a then-dominant legislature in 1885, Wilson insisted: ``Quite as important as legislation is vigilant oversight of administration.''6 Wilson noted that oversight had increased, in part because of developments in the executive and in part because of Congress' own evolution. He discussed some of the rationales for oversight, along with its consequences. These included educating and informing the public and representing constituent and citizen interests: `` . . . even more important than legislation is the instruction and guidance in political affairs which the people might receive from a body which kept all national concerns suffused in a broad daylight of discussion.''7

Wilson went on to insist: ``It is the proper duty of a representative body to look diligently into every affair of government and to talk much about what it sees. It is meant to be the eyes and the voice, and to embody the wisdom and will of its constituents . . . The informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function.''8



FOOTNOTES

5 John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, London, Parker, Son, and Bourn, 1861. p. 104.
6 Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government, Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, 1885. p. 297.
7 Ibid, p. 297.
8 Ibid, p. 303.


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