How Congress Oversees Policy Implementation in Washington, D.C.
Checks and balances are a core tenet of the U.S. political system in Washington, D.C., written in by the Founding Fathers. The three branches of government check on each other and balance each other so that no single entity can amass a disproportionate amount of decision-making power.
One key function of Congress is to oversee executive branch operations; the many committees of Congress monitor and supervise the ways in which federal agencies implement policy. This oversight focuses on a couple key issues:
Are federal agencies carrying out their mandates as directed by congressional legislation?
Are these same agencies conducting their daily functions in line with congressional intent as outlined in the legislative history, floor debate, and other statements developed at the time a law was under consideration by the House and the Senate?
Some of the most famous (and scandalous) events in U.S. political history — the McCarthy Communism investigations, Watergate, and Iran-Contra — unfolded in congressional committee hearings.
Congress accomplishes the necessary checks and balances in various ways:
To uncover fraud, waste, and abuse in government spending, Congress holds regular hearings in which agency heads respond directly to the questions and concerns of members of Congress under whose committee jurisdiction their respective agencies fall.
The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 requires that federal agencies consult with Congress on their performance on a regular basis. Agencies submit annual reports to Congress, outlining their performance plans and goals and summarizing results achieved (usually for the most recent and upcoming fiscal years).
Some agencies have inspectors general who must report on a regular basis to the relevant congressional committees on agency performance or shortcomings.
Congressional committees may, at their discretion, hold formal hearings to hear testimony from responsible agency officials (usually the politically appointed agency head) about topics or programs of particular interest.
At times, congressional committee staff may meet informally with key agency personnel to discuss agency activities that are particularly important to senior committee members. If these informal contacts lead members of Congress to suspect that agency performance is lacking or deviating from congressional intent, they can lead to formal hearings or investigations.
Individual legislators may express concerns directly to agency officials through letters, phone calls, or e-mails from staff, or through public statements.
Congressional investigative bodies such as the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) can issue detailed reports about federal agency performance and effectiveness. Agencies being investigated often meet with GAO staff to answer questions and may submit written comments in response to issued reports.
Clearly, members of Congress and the staff of federal agencies have a lot of interaction. To try to make the interaction as smooth as possible, and to coordinate its response to any concerns that are raised, each federal agency maintains a congressional affairs office.