Oversight is one of Congress’s chief responsibilities, along with writing laws, raising revenue and spending public money. So why is it that on the whole, Congress is failing that responsibility, allowing waste, fraud and abuse to go unchecked throughout the federal bureaucracy? A National Academy of Public Administration report once charged it’s because “Congressional oversight in general is more geared to garnering media attention” than making government work better. According to current and former Congressional investigators, the oversight process today is in a shambles; many investigations are superficial and scattershot at best. Too many lawmakers are ambivalent about oversight and subject to pressure from the targets of their investigations. Sources within federal agencies have withered; many whistleblowers, no longer nurtured by Congress, remain silent.
No better (or worse) example can be found than the Government Operations Committee — designed to be the House of Representatives’ most tenacious government watchdog. The committee has floundered since Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) replaced the tough Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas), who had chaired the committee for 13 years. “We have 360-degree authority to pursue waste, fraud and abuse,” says committee member Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), “and we should strike fear in the hearts of bureaucrats and contractors. But nobody’s afraid.”
Sources on and off Conyers’ committee say the chairman, who has solicited and received contributions from a number of parties with a stake in his committee’s investigations, isn’t aggressive or focused enough. The 14-term lawmaker, in one insider’s words, tends to “accommodate the people being investigated rather than the investigators.” In fact, Conyers’ accommodating nature cost 15-year congressional investigator Tom Trimboli his job — for doing his job too well. This is the same Tom Trimboli who played a key role in uncovering the Wedtech scandal. The same Tom Trimboli who Conyers called “as good as they get” — six months before dismissing him.
The dismissal was the result of a committee investigation, led by Trimboli, of the Unisys corporation, a major defense contractor. Trimboli was looking into charges that Unisys was defrauding the government in a $1.7 billion computer contract they had won with the Air Force. It took only one unhappy phone call to Rep. Conyers from Unisys Chair Michael Blumenthal before Trimboh was fired, paralyzing the Unisys investigation. To this date, no hearings have been held and no final committee report has been issued.
The sad state of congressional oversight is best summarized by 30-year veteran investigator Don Gray, who recently left the Hill. According to Gray, seldom heard are the sweetest words a lawmaker can say to an investigator: ‘Take it where it goes. I’ll back you up all the way.”
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER: RACHAEL KINBERG
SOURCE: COMMON CAUSE, 2030 M Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036, DATE: July/August 1991
TITLE: “See No Evil”
AUTHOR: Jeffrey Denny
COMMENTS: Jeffrey Denny, senior editor at Common Cause, charges that “The problem addressed in ‘See No Evil’ — waste, fraud and abuse runs largely unchecked through the federal government because Congress’s oversight function has been undermined by lawmakers’ close relationship with special interests and federal agencies — by its very nature receives insufficient exposure in the mass media.
‘The mass media by and large views Congress’s oversight committees as friendly sources, ignoring the confluence of pressures — i.e. lawmakers’ need to raise campaign money from special interests and win favors for constituents from bureaucrats — that undermine tough, effective enforcement.
‘Too often the mainstream media has been used by publicity-seeking members of Congress whose ‘investigations’ are little more than quick-hit press events. And when oversight efforts are reported, key questions remain unasked: Was the committee lobbied by the target to ease up and what was the impact of the lobbying effort? Did the target provide campaign-contributions to members of the committee? Did the committee use all its powers to compel testimony and documents from the executive branch? Were findings used to achieve action, such as Justice Department prosecution?
“In three recent cases, the mass media missed a key angle in its coverage of the HUD, S&L and Iran-contra scandals: Where was Congress, with all its oversight powers, while these scandals brewed?”
Denny says that more information about the failure of Congressional oversight could “provoke Congress to make institutional — and attitudinal -changes that will improve its ability to cover waste, fraud and abuse — perhaps improving public trust in government and saving taxpayers money.”
As it is, Denny adds “Ultimately, special interests that are ripping off government stand to benefit from the lack of coverage of Congress’s lax oversight. So long as Congress feels it can spoon-feed the press investigatory pabulum and fool the public into believing it really is doing something about waste, fraud and abuse, there will be no incentive for lawmakers to change.” Denny concludes that the mass media no longer can think of Congress as a friendly source, but “rather must hold it accountable as an elected branch of government with a serious job to do.”