How Congress Oversees Executive Branch Functions in Washington, D.C.

A major Constitutional check on the executive branch in Washington, D.C. is congressional oversight: the power to investigate and oversee the executive branch, usually carried out by congressional committees.

The Senate plays a particularly important role in checking the power of the executive branch because it has the power to confirm Cabinet officials, judges, and other high officials — a form of leverage that senators often exploit until they get what they want from the President.

In addition, the Senate has the power to approve — to “advise and consent” as the Constitution puts it — all treaties that are negotiated by the executive branch. (President Richard Nixon once remarked that in his dealings with the Senate he got a lot more advice than consent.)

Congress has many additional powers within its grasp, including some that are crucial to national defense. As laid out by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, its powers include:

  • Borrowing money from other nations

  • Declaring war on other nations

  • Determining and establishing the structure of the military (and doling out money for national defense)

  • Establishing federal laws that don’t interfere with the rights of individual states to govern their own populations internally

This last power is often a sticking point between the competing political parties, who make up the overwhelming majority of Congress’s members and often espouse different views about how much the federal government should poke its nose into issues that states usually handle themselves.

But pay close attention: Political arguments masquerading as defenses of states’ rights are not always telling the whole story. (Remember slavery?) Politicians from all sides have used this argument when convenient and quietly dropped it when not.

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